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Football round table: Unstoppable force, immovable object

The Daily’s King Jemison, Andrew Tan and Gregory Block weigh in on the Cardinal’s prospective performance in the Big Game

Senior running back Bryce Love (above) may not be his Heisman-contending 2017 self, but historically, he has gashed Cal on the ground. In three Big Games, he has 200 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. (MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford football enters the Big Game this year with the same record as the Cal Golden Bears for the first time in what seems like forever. The playing field is level, and everything is on the line. The Cardinal have an eight game winning streak in progress, and look to make it nine. Cal has a strong defensive identity and a bowl game for the first time since 2015. Two teams enter, one team leaves. The Daily’s King Jemison, Andrew Tan and Gregory Block share their thoughts on the aerial strength of the Stanford offense, the Big Game finale for Bryce Love, the meager Cal offensive attack and how everything (and I mean everything)could go wrong.

 

Offense versus defense. A tale as old as time. Cal has beaten Washington and USC through nothing but the power of sheer defense. In fact, they didn’t even score an offensive touchdown versus the Huskies. Can KJ Costello and the high-powered Stanford offense crack a hole in the Berkeley Bulwark?

King Jemison (KJ): As good as Cal’s defense has been the last four games, they still struggled earlier in the season. UCLA has two wins this season. One of those was over Cal, and they scored 37 points on this vaunted Bears defense. That was the highest point total for Chip Kelly’s Bruin offense all season. Cal also gave up 42 points to Oregon and 23 to FCS-level Idaho State. They have their bad games defensively, but the question is whether Stanford can force them into one of those bad games.

The good news? KJ Costello and the Cardinal passing attack have been awesome this season. Costello is second in the Pac-12 with 285.4 passing yards per game, and he leads the conference in yards per attempt and passing efficiency. His tall and talented receiving corps, from superstar JJ Arcega-Whiteside (if he’s healthy), to tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson, to reliable senior Trent Irwin (who’s low-key one of the best in the nation as well) can put up points on anybody.

The bad news? Stanford’s strength, the passing offense, will likely be neutralized by Cal’s strength, their dominant passing defense. The Bears hold opponents to a Pac-12 best average of 183.8 passing yards per game, and they have 14 interceptions on the year, which also ranks first in the Pac-12 and sixth in the country. The difference will be whether or not Stanford can generate anything out of the run game, which leads perfectly into the next question…

Andrew Tan (AT): If you read last week’s edition previewing Stanford’s home matchup against Oregon State, you may have noticed an underlying bleak tone throughout my responses. Well, call me fickle, reactionary or even a prisoner of the moment, but after last week’s 48-17 stomping, I’m back on the bandwagon. Nothing restores a fan’s faith in his team more than a pivotal matchup with a hated rival, especially when that opponent is Cal and its heinous excuse for a mascot.

King provided all the stats you could ask for in an analysis of this matchup, so my breakdown of the Big Game will be be based much more on intuition and gut feeling. Yes, it is true that Cal has a strong defensive unit–one that has held its opponents below 20 points in four consecutive weeks, a slate that included No. 18 Washington and No. 8 Washington State–but this defense can also be gashed, as UCLA demonstrated in its 37-7 dismantling of Cal before this four-game stretch.

The combination of Stanford’s disappointing season and Cal’s relatively surprising success have inspired Oski and his broskis and given them the most confidence they have had since 2009, the last time the Bears claimed the Axe. This game sets up perfectly to be yet another soul-crushing defeat for Cal at the hands of the Cardinal with both teams at 6-4 and the Bears at home looking to send students home to their families satisfied by a win before Thanksgiving. Look for Costello and the Cardinal passing attack to carve up the Cal defense with long bombs to Smith and Arcega-Whiteside. Add on a little bit of gravy in the form of Irwin and the Stanford run game and the Cardinal will be feasting on defenders all night. In the end, Cal will be going home to stuff themselves with enough tryptophan to knock out a bear and try to sleep this one off.

Gregory Block (GB): Costello and the Cardinal passing attack have been so sharp of late that I think they might be able to keep it going, no matter how talented this Cal pass defense truly is. K.J. has topped 300 yards through the air for four straight games and has so many talented weapons to choose from. If he can keep up the connections with Colby Parkinson and JJ Arcega-Whiteside, I don’t think there’s anyone on Cal’s roster that can out-jump either of those guys in the end zone. That being said, and King touched on this, Cal will likely focus a lot of their defensive attention on stopping the ball through the air. That means that the Cardinal offensive line and Bryce Love will have to step up to take some of the pressure off of their quarterback. If the Cardinal can find the right balance early, Costello can get comfortable. It’ll only take a couple of big throws to turn the tides in a game like this, so Costello doesn’t have to come out and throw the ball 45 times to give Stanford a chance.

In his four year career at Stanford, Bryce Love has 26 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns against UC Berkeley. That’s 7.7 yards per carry, which is above his career average of 7.1 yards per carry. Do you expect to see the Love of old out on the field on Saturday?

KJ: Bryce Love is looking better each week as he continues to recover from the ankle injury that he re-aggravated against Notre Dame in Week Five. All season, he hasn’t been able to mimic his incredible production from last year due to injuries and poor offensive line play, but he may be closer health-wise to the Bryce Love of old than he has been since the very first game of the season. He still won’t see a ton of carries as Stanford’s coaching staff continues to be careful and patient with his health. That might not matter, though, because a semi-healthy Bryce Love can do more with 15 carries than most running backs can do with 30.

Cal’s rushing defense is good; it ranks third in the Pac-12 with an average of 134.8 rushing yards surrendered per game, but it’s not nearly as good as their passing defense. Love should be able to have some success on the ground, and maybe this is the game where he finally breaks one of those patented 50+ yards touchdowns. If so, Stanford’s offense should be just fine.

AT: Let’s face it, the Bryce has not been right this year. After his Heisman-quality season in the 2017 campaign, Love has battled the injury bug for most of 2018, limiting his effectiveness out of the backfield. As the Cardinal have done in the past few weeks, I expect Stanford to split carries among a variety of backs including Love, Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox.

Love is unquestionably still the lead back so he should have a quality game, but I don’t see the back being the game breaker that unlocks the Cardinal offense on Saturday. If the Cardinal can find success through the air early, Love may burst a few runs that the Stanford fans can go home thankful for, but don’t look for Love to suddenly regain his form from last year and become the centerpiece of this offense.

GB: Forget all the talk about how bad of a year Bryce Love is having. This is Cal versus Stanford, the biggest game of all, at the culmination of a 2018 season that can only be described as a complete disappointment. Love will be gone after the season and you know that he’s the type of player that will want to end his collegiate career with a vintage performance. Since we can practically write off the Stanford-UCLA game in terms of importance, and Stanford is shaping up for a spot in the Redbox Bowl (or lackluster bowl equivalent), this is basically what all the Stanford players are playing for – a victory over their arch-rivals in Berkeley to keep the streak alive. I know it might be a hot take, but I expect Love to have a good day, even if the Cal defense lives up to their billing. I expect Cal to be so focused on slowing down the Cardinal passing attack (hard to believe I’m writing those words), that there will be plenty of open running lanes for Bryce to wrap up his Stanford career with 100 yards and a score.

The Cal offense has not inspired fear in the hearts of their enemies this year, but neither has the Stanford defense. Is the Cardinal defensive unit strong enough to fend off the Golden Bears on offense? What’s a matchup you’re keeping your eye on?

KJ: As bad as Stanford’s defense has been at times this season, Cal’s offense is undoubtedly worse. The Bears have the worst offense in the Pac-12, averaging just 363.9 total yards per game. That puts them at 102nd in the country. Presumptive starting QB Chase Garbers only has two games with over 200 yards passing, and his 6.3 yards per attempt ranks last among Pac-12 starters. Patrick Laird is a solid running back, and Vic Wharton is a steady wide receiver, but that’s about all the positives you can come up with about the Bears offense.

The biggest question is whether or not Stanford can take away Cal’s QB run game. Garbers and backup QB Brandon McIlwain have combined for over 700 rushing yards this season. Stanford hasn’t faced many mobile quarterbacks, but Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Utah’s Tyler Huntley both torched the Cardinal pass rush with their athleticism. If Garbers is able to extend plays and get first downs with his legs, then the Bears offense might actually find some success against the Cardinal.

AT: If Stanford’s offense is the fat uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who wolfs down three helpings of mashed potatoes before you can even touch your food, Cal’s is the toddler who plays with his food and makes a mess trying to get cranberry sauce into his mouth. The Cardinal offense feasts; the Bears are incapable of ‘eating.’

The only above-average element of the Cal offense is its running game featuring Patrick Laird. Contain him and the Bears might score zero points. Stanford’s defense hasn’t been good, but was serviceable against a better Oregon State rushing attack, ranked 61st. Laird is undoubtedly the biggest threat on the field for Cal as aside from his 771 rushing yards, he also has a 100 percent completion percentage as a passer. If Laird can continue at that clip and switch to quarterback for the Big Game, the Cardinal might be screwed. As this won’t happen, look for Cal to score 20 points max.

GB: I know Stanford’s defense has been porous at times this year, but Cal hasn’t broken 20 points in four weeks. They just don’t have enough weapons to pose a serious threat to a Stanford defense that seemed to turn the corner last week against Oregon State. While the Bears’ passing offense is abysmal, senior running back Patrick Laird is a solid runner between the tackles. It’ll be crucial for the Stanford front seven to plug the gaps early, as Laird in the open field is a potentially scary sign for a weaker-than-usual Cardinal secondary.

Stanford has won eight straight Big Games, the longest winning streak in history. David Shaw has never lost to Cal. But play devil’s advocate for a second. Paint me a picture. Show me the Golden Bears’ game plan. How does this game end up in a broken streak and a Cal victory? How likely do you think this outcome is?

KJ: The 2018 Big Game is more evenly matched than it’s been since 2009. Stanford’s decade-long run of success has coincided with a decade of futility for Cal, but it looks like they may be meeting in the middle this season. The Bears defense is the best unit on the field. If they are able to control the clock with their run game and force Costello into a couple of turnovers, Cal has every chance to win. I believe it’s extremely likely that this game will be a tight, low-scoring affair throughout, and in that scenario, the result might as well be a toss up.

AT: The National Anthem has just finished. The teams quickly come out for opening kickoff. Stanford has won the coin toss and deferred. Jake Bailey takes a running start to the ball and launches it into the end zone into the arms of Ashtyn Davis, who elects to take the ball out for a return. He makes his first defender miss, then a second, and the fans quickly see that he has the angle for the touchdown.

Suddenly, fans scream in anguish and fear, bewildered by the noises and crashes surrounding California Memorial Stadium. Davis is across the 50, but the field starts to crack and collapse, swallowing Cardinal and Bears special teams players left and right. He keeps going, as defenders sink into the abyss, now running not only for the first score, but for his life. An extra burst helps Davis make it past the goal line, and as he looks around to celebrate with his fans and teammates, he sees behind him a gaping crater where the field once was.

A single referee lies unconscious on the other side of the field. As cacophony and uncertainty fills the stadium, a figure emerges from the visitors’ tunnel. He walks methodically toward the comatose official and silence consumes the crowd. Coming to their senses, members of the audience begin to recognize the mysterious creature, now reaching down to the ref to take his microphone. A solitary moment devoid of any sound signals that the figure is about to speak. With a completely blank expression, betraying no emotion, Oski bellows into the mic: “Berkeley! Take control. Take control of your city.”

Cal wins 6-0 on a game cut short by the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

GB: The scariest thing for Stanford fans is if Coach Shaw wakes up on Saturday morning and reverts back to the 2017 version of himself. Run the ball with Bryce Love up the middle on first, second and third down. Hope that he breaks open a big run. Instead, Shaw will quickly realize that this year’s Cal defense is very talented, and what was supposed to be Bryce Love’s Heisman season features another lackluster Cardinal rushing performance. Even if the Bears defense can slow down Costello, Love and the high-flying Cardinal, they won’t get much support from their offense, which won’t be able to break 10 points if the Stanford front seven can stop the Cal run game. Stanford’s offense is good enough to put up a couple of scores. I don’t think I can say the same thing about the Cal offense. 

 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu, and Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu

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