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Behind Enemy Lines: Big Game Edition

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Stanford and Cal have one of the greatest and least appreciated rivalries in sports, academics and clock towers. Nevertheless, we find ways to collaborate. This week, we have invited a few of our Bears friends to our roundtable to provide some insider scouting on the Big Game foe. 

With uncertainty once again at quarterback, what should Cal’s offensive game plan be against the beleaguered Stanford defense? 

Josh Yuen, Daily Cal (JY): As if last week’s loss to USC on senior night was bad enough, the Bears suffered at least four significant injuries that affected both their game plan and mentality throughout the contest. While I’m happy to report that linebacker/special teams member Evan Tattersall — who was stretchered off the field after a scary collision in the second quarter — was discharged from the hospital and will be okay, there’s two lingering injuries to key offensive playmakers heading into the Stanford week. In the backfield, starting tailback Chris Brown Jr. departed the USC game after just three minutes, while quarterback Chase Garbers left early in the second quarter, both dealing with upper body/head injuries. Obviously, they’re super important to Cal’s execution and game plan, and without them, it’s back to a pair of transfers — Devon Modster and DeShawn Collins — who will take the majority of reps this week if the regular starters are unable to practice. 

My guess is that the game plan will be similar to what the Bears tried against Washington State with Modster at quarterback, which is a ton of quick-developing plays with a couple deep shots if they’re able to get near midfield. But overall, the offense needs to take advantage of a Stanford defense that obviously struggled last week up in Pullman. 

Jake Curtis, Cal Maven (JC): Chase Garbers, starting running back Christopher Brown Jr., starting safety Ashtyn Davis and starting wide receiver Kekoa Crawford are all questionable for Saturday.

The game plan will depend on who’s available. If Garbers is the starter, the Bears will probably pass often early against a Stanford defense that has given up a lot of passing yardage. As the game goes on and Cal is ahead or close, it will probably depend more on the running game. If Brown is not available, the Bears will depend more on DeShawn Collins, who rushed for 103 yards last week against USC and provides more speed. Even if Brown does play, Collins will get more carries than he did early in the season.

If Devon Modster is the quarterback, the Bears may take some early shots downfield just to show that they will try to go deep, but will rely more on the running game and short passes, often to the backs.

In any case, Cal will take some shots downfield, but it will still be a fairly conservative offensive approach because the Bears still want their defense to win the game.

Cal’s secondary has been one of the best in the country over the past few years, but USC quarterback Kedon Slovis torched the Bears for 406 yards and four touchdowns last Saturday. Stanford’s passing offense has struggled this season, though junior QB Davis Mills just broke the school record for single game passing yards with 504 against Washington State. What do you think of the matchup between Cal’s secondary and the Stanford passing attack? 

JY: Stanford can also attest to the brutal reality of injuries in 2019, I can certainly acknowledge that much. For the Bears, the injury bug doesn’t end on the offensive side of the ball. Starting safety/punt returner Ashtyn Davis hurt his foot on a return in the first half, and was unable to play defense throughout the rest of the game. Davis and Evan Weaver, the nation’s leading tackler, will probably be the first two Bears selected in next April’s draft, and without him, the secondary depth is deep, but certainly not as talented as Davis is. I’ll be the first to say that I did not see Davis Mills’ 504-yard outburst this past weekend coming, and I was definitely surprised to see Stanford out of all teams abandon the run almost entirely and move the chains through the air. It was concerning to see Slovis have so much success against a defense that has been highly-touted over the past year, and Davis’ injury leaves me particularly worried about Stanford’s newfound depth outside the hashes (Simi Fehoko, Michael Wilson, Connor Wedington, etc.). Regardless of who starts at center for the Cardinal, I wouldn’t expect another 500-yard day at the office, but somewhere between 250 and 350 sounds about right. 

JC: The strength of Cal’s defense is its experience and the scheme of Justin Wilcox. There is talent at inside linebacker (Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng) and all five of its defensive backs have talent. They seldom make major mistakes, and they disguise their defenses well. The problem against USC was that its wide receivers were simply able to play the ball in the air better than Cal’s defensive backs. Slovis would throw the ball to a well covered receiver, and Michael Pittman Jr. or Amon-Ra St. Brown or Drake London would go up and snatch the 50-50 balls.

Cal’s secondary could have similar problem against Stanford’s wideouts, who are not as talented as USC’s wideouts, but have the size that could cause Cal problems in coverage.

Cal was unable to apply enough pressure on Slovis to make him nervous. Mills has also shown an ability to be accurate when he has time, so I expect Cal to blitz often to try to hurry Mills or Costello. Cal typically does not blitz a lot, figuring its secondary can hold up against most passing attacks. But that may change Saturday.

Cal started off the season hot but has faded down the stretch with five losses in six games. Still, Stanford is mired in its worst season since 2008. Is this Cal’s best opportunity yet to break the nine-year Big Game losing streak? What is the biggest key for Cal to finally get over the hump against Stanford? 

JY: So if I remember correctly, 2011 and 2017 were two of the more contestable Big Game’s in recent memory ever since Stanford has had The Axe in its possession over the past decade. I thought last year actually presented the best case for Cal to (finally) take it back, knowing that Bryce Love was banged up and the Bears were at home and all that. In terms of your first question, I definitely felt more confident last year with the defense clicking on all cylinders. But in terms of that final question, the biggest key is winning the turnover battle. The Bears don’t have a Miami-esque “Turnover Chain” or anything like that, but if there’s one thing that gets this team fired up, it’s a defensive takeaway (or a quarterback front-flipping into the endzone). If Stanford opts for another pass-heavy game plan, Cal’s secondary needs to take advantage and give the offense at least a chance to make some magic happen down on The Farm. 

JC: Yes, this is the best chance, primarily because Stanford is not nearly as good as it has been in recent years. Stanford has been a national powerhouse in most of the preceding nine years, and Cal has been lousy for the most part. The last time Cal finished the season with a better overall record than Stanford was 2008, and the Bears have a good shot to have a better overall record this year. (Even if Cal loses to Stanford, the Cardinal is unlikely to beat Notre Dame, and Cal has a shot to beat UCLA in its finale.)

The key for Cal is forcing turnovers. Last season the Bears forced 28 turnovers, including 21 interceptions. This year Cal has forced just 12 turnovers, including a mere four picks. The Bears need to give their offense some short fields.

The other key is a healthy Chase Garbers. If Garbers starts and makes it through the entire game, the Bears have a pretty good chance. The Bears are 4-0 in games in which Garbers played more than one half. His absence is one of the main reasons for Cal’s decline at midseason, although the schedule played a role too. The only impressive win against the first four foes was the road win over Washington, which is not as good as expected. The Bears are 1-5 in the games Garbers does not play at least one half. If Devon Modster is forced to play part or all of Saturday’s game, the odds of a Cal victory go way down.

Contact us at sports ‘at’ stanforddaily.com, Josh Yuen at jyuen@dailycal.org and Jake Curtis at jakecurtis53@gmail.com.

The Daily Sports Staff is the collective moniker of an overworked, beleaguered, underpaid collection of sportswriters that feel comfortable enough with their own self-identities to give up any sense of individualism for the good of the sports section. To contact The Daily Sports Staff, send an email to the managing editor(s) of the sports staff (sports 'at' stanforddaily.com), keepers of the souls of those sportswriters.