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Mather: What Stanford football can learn from Cal (and vice versa)

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For two teams that are located so near each other and often find themselves chasing the same recruits, Stanford and Cal play pretty dramatically different styles. The Cardinal is known for their pro-style offense and stifling defense, while the Golden Bears live and die by the spread (with whatever defense they can muster).

Neither style is, strictly speaking, better than the other; however, I think it’s safe to say that elements of each team’s methodology could easily be applied on the other side of the Bay. In the spirit of unity on this week of the 119th Big Game, here’s a look at what I think both Stanford and Cal do well — and what each program’s counterpart would be wise to look at more closely.

Trust your quarterback. There is a lot, and I mean really a lot, to like about David Shaw’s offense at Stanford. Despite the quality that Shaw has had at quarterback, however, the passing game has often been an area that has, at least comparatively, been a bit of a weakness at times. The Cardinal have seemed unable to make much progress through the air this season, and aspects of the play calling — particularly against high-caliber opponents like Washington and Washington State — seemed to prioritize avoiding mistakes (even when the team was already down big) over creating big plays.

Sonny Dykes falls somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum. Part of this has just been the sheer quality of the quarterbacks he’s had to work with — Jared Goff’s record speaks for itself, and Davis Webb has done a more than adequate job of filling his shoes — but the Bears’ coach deserves his fair share of credit for sticking with his game plan even in tough situations. While the teams from the Evergreen State swept the Bears as they did the Cardinal, Cal more than doubled Stanford’s offensive output against them, suggesting that perhaps at least part of Dykes’ plan was successful.

Run the clock. Cal’s offense is darn good, and, with the likes of Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall to build around, it figures to continue to be for some time. Cal’s defense, by comparison, doesn’t really measure up. Unimpressive only begins to describe this squad’s performance this season — the Bears rank dead last in the country in scoring defense and only barely beat out what may be the least defensively-oriented team in the country, Texas Tech, in terms of total defense.

Obviously, part of the path to improvement has to come from the defense itself. However, quite interestingly, Cal’s players have shown plenty of signs of life when they’ve been called upon. The team’s goal-line stand against Utah is probably the best example of this, while its fairly solid performance against Washington’s Miles Gaskin shows the players can sustain their efforts for large parts of a game.

Unfortunately, the defense seems like it’s called upon a bit too often. While some might write this off as a natural byproduct of an air-focused attack, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Mike Leach has really incorporated the run into his system in the past two years and to great effect — Wazzu was a 42-yard field goal away from winning the Pac-12 North last year and sits atop the standings so far this season — and even simply sacrificing a bit of efficiency in terms of yards per play to give the defense a break might do a lot for this team. David Shaw is the master of time of possession, and I think that the Bears and their surprisingly adequate running game might benefit from taking a closer look at his model.

Don’t get penalized. Another area where Cal ranks at the bottom of the FBS? Penalty yards per game. This is perhaps a bit unfair to Cal, which runs many more plays per game than most other schools, but, either way, penalty yards matter. A poorly timed flag can really kill momentum, and in general, they create yet another headache for a team to overcome in close games.

Penalties are a point of potential improvement for Stanford this year as well. The Cardinal have needed every yard they can get in many of their games, and David Shaw has certainly been hard on his team when flags have impaired it. Dykes has emphasized the need to reduce his side’s penalization as well, but improvement has been a lot patchier with the Golden Bears. While Cal’s coaches have occasionally attempted to spin some of their penalties as “aggressive penalties” that aren’t as big of a problem, the bottom line is that numbers are blind to intent.

Dykes has done a tremendous job of instilling discipline in this Cal program as a whole, and I think penalization is the last place where the team needs to play a little catch-up. If the Bears could find their way back to Stanford-esque numbers in this category, a couple of those close games might just have flipped in the other direction.

Create better stadium promotions. Marshawn Lynch bobblehead day was awesome. Your move, Stanford.

 

Ask Andrew Mather whether he thinks Stanford needs a Richard Sherman-Harry Potter bobblehead at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.