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Cal Football

Stanford Preview: Passing Game Hitting New Heights

November 29, 2018
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“You don’t know how important it is to win the Big Game until you lose one.”

                                                                                                    --Jeff Tedford


 

Cal fans are hoping the Bears can teach Stanford coach David Shaw how much it hurts to lose  a Big Game this Saturday when the 121st edition of the series -- postponed from Nov. 17. --takes place in Memorial Stadium.. Shaw has been head coach in seven Big Games and won them all. Throw in the 2010 game when Jim Harbaugh was the Cardinal head man and it’s an eight-game Stanford win streak.

The Cardinal (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) will not take the streak for granted. Although they have secured bowl eligibility they figure to be plenty fired-up. It is  the Big Game, after all.

“We know every time we play Cal it’s going to be a very emotional game,” defensive back Malik Antoine told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Stanford’s four losses are to Notre Dame, Washington State, Washington and Utah, all currently ranked in AP’s top 25.

A closer look at Stanford

Offense

For most of Shaw’s tenure Stanford has emphasized the run. They have had the quality ball carriers such as Toby Gearhart, Christian McCaffrey and currently Bryce Love. But this year Stanford is doing it through the air. While the running game, for a variety of reasons has been MIA (109.8 yards per game, 11th in the conference) the aerial  game is flourishing.

The Bears must cope with the with a passing attack that ranks second in the Pac-12 in yards per game at 294. The key is junior quarterback K.J. Costello, who leads the conference in pass efficiency at 156.9.

As the season has gone on, he has gotten better. In the past five games, Costello has completed 73 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns  -- five against UCLA last week -- and an average of 317.6 yards. He is just the third Stanford quarterback to collect seven 300-yard passing games in a season (John Elway in 1982 and Steve Stenstrom in 1983).

Shaw says none of it happened by accident.

“He is one of the few quarterbacks that we have gotten that came in as a freshman that understood protections, understood fronts and coverages and wanted to learn more about the running game, who is blocking whom,” Shaw said.  “He is probably a year ahead in his growth because he practiced and prepared so hard.”

The offense has had to deal with some key injuries, notably to Bryce Love, a presason All-American, dangerous receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside and tight end Kaden Smith.  

The first two are relatively healthy and each contributed to last Saturday’s victory over UCLA. Love had 85 yards rushing and a two-point conversion. Arcega-Whiteside had seven receptions, three for touchdowns.

Love has missed two games and been hampered in others. After rushing for an astounding  2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns on 263 carries and finishing second in the Heisman voting in 2017, he has been limited to 665 yards and six TDs this year.

Arcega-Whiteside at 6-3 with speed and jumping ability is a load for any defensive back. He has 55 catches for 754 yards and an eye-popping 14 touchdowns in ten games. There really is no one like him in the conference, or maybe in the country.

“He’s got long arms and he’s really strong,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. “He has strong hands. The contested catches he makes are very impressive and how they get him the ball. You notice when they get down to the red zone they just keep throwing it to him.”

Stanford has long shown the world what can be done with big tight ends. This year is no exception. Smith, a junior who stands 6-5 and has 47 catches for 635 yards, might be healthy enough to play on Saturday.

His backup Colby Parkinson (above), even taller at 6-7, is certainly no slouch. He had 166 receiving yards and four touchdown catches against Oregon State three weeks ago and was named Pac-12 offensive Player of the Week. Those totals almost equaled what he had done in the previous nine games.

“ Four times during the (Oregon State)  game he got single coverage and he’s a foot taller than the guy covering him,” Shaw said. “And that’s tough. Maybe not quite a foot, but that’s still a tough matchup.“

Cal certainly is aware of all those weapons. The Bears who have only one defensive back as tall as 6-2, will have to be creative in their coverages.  “They’ve got a bunch of trees out there, kind of apropos I guess,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “They must have all been really good basketball players because they know how to post up.. The quarterback is very good about putting the ball where they’re always open. Just throw it to one side or the other and they’ll post you up.

“It presents some challenges and we’re just trying to figure out our matchups the best and we’re going to try to mess with leverages and coverages, and make them figure it out and try to make it difficult on them. Not many people have.”

The offensive line is another area where injuries have disrupted things The Cardinal have used six different offensive line combinations to start the game this season due to injuries. Only sophomore left tackle Walker Little has started all 1a.

"It's been different, but a lot of guys have responded," Shaw said.

However, there is no question the turnover in the line has made cohesion difficult and one reason the running game has slipped. Guards Nate Herbig and Foster Sarell could both be back on Saturday, which will give the unit a boost.

Defense

WIth losses due to graduation and injury, Stanford has a relatively inexperienced unit. The Cardinal have no obvious star on defense, just a bunch of guys working in unison.

“They just play so well together.,” Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin said. “They have some key guys and you can talk about them. I think 11 (Adebo Paulson) is playing extremely good at the corner position. I think some of the other guys up front that we played against last year.

“ I think more than anything is you don’t earmark this person or that person. You earmark their team, how they do it as a group. How they understand and play off each other. They react well, when they’ve seen something once they’ll make adjustments to it really well. They understand their assignments, their leverage, where they’re supposed to be. They don’t beat themselves in that way.

“They’re very good on top of it.The biggest compliment I can say is it’s not about recognizing one person and more about recognizing how well they’re coached, how disciplined they are, how hard they play. They just do things right. You know you’re in for 60 minutes no matter what the score is they’re not going to stop coming. They’re just wired that way.”

The Cardinal use a base 3-4 alignment, similar to Cal’s. The nose tackle Michael Williams is usually in the middle of things, literally and figuratively. Particularly strong against the run, he leads the defensive linemen in tackles with 39. The line became a little weaker when defensive end Dylan Jackson, a 6-6, 264-pound senior, was injured against UCLA. He is likely done for the season.

The strength of the defense is the linebacker corps. Redshirt senior Bobby Okereke is in his third year as a starter at inside linebacker and is the leader of the defense. He has 78  tackles this year, tops on the team. Next to him is another senior Sean Barton, who was lost for the season in 2017 after being hurt in the third game, but he has come back strong.

Senior safety Frank Buncom is the leader of the secondary. As Baldwin pointed out, Paulson is playing very well.

Special Teams

Place kicker Jeff Toner was back against UCLA after missing two games with an injury.

Senior Jake Bailey's 43.64 career punting average ranks first in program history. A Two-time All-Pac-12 selection he led the conference and ranked seventh nationally last year, averaging  45.4 yards This year he averages 43.3.

Trent Irwin averages 10.8 yards per punt return, tops in the conference.

Overall

Despite being slight underdogs the Bears have their best chance in years to regain the axe. They cannot afford any turnovers and probably need one or two from the Cardinal. Even with their injuries the Cal receivers match up well with the Stanford secondary. The key will be how well the defense deals with Costello and his imposing receivers.


 

 
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