Oh hizzle to yizzle. It’s that time. Big Game Week. I’m loving it, a bit more so this year, because for the first time in years, the Cal’s annual matchup against Stanford this week means just a bit more to both teams. While the game doesn’t hold national or conference implications, its outcome is of the upmost importance to both Bay Area teams.
For Stanford, a win can send the Cardinal to their first bowl game since 2001, coincidentally the last year Cal had a losing record.
For Jeff Tedford and the Bears, a victory is the winning back of the axe, a suitable salute to the seniors, and has huge implications on the teams’ confidence and recruiting efforts as they finish the season. A loss however, would be another season collapse with much more troubling offseason questions and decisions. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News lays it out in full here.
In sum, I have the general opinion that Cal has far more lose than gain with the game, which makes it dangerously important.
Cal is coming off two losses (albeit road games against the top teams in the conference) to face the arguably the best Stanford squad since Jeff Tedford has face since taking over the program. Actually, there isn’t really any argument here, this is the best Stanford squad Tedford has faced during his time here. The Bears can’t expect to roll over the Cardinal, especially given their recent losses and the loss of the axe last year.
So Let’s Get to It
Protect Kevin Riley
Cal’s decline in production on offense has been perceptibly linked with the injuries and experience to the offensive line. And unfortunately, it’s not something you can really magically make better in such a short amount of time. You can’t suddenly inject a 3rd stringer with years of experience, or a load of skill at once. It really is one of those things that is what it is.
Cal will just have to make do with a tough situation, against one of the tougher and more physical Stanford defensive lines that leads the conferences in sacks with 32. Not an appetizing matchup for a patchwork offensive line that has given up 9 sacks in the last two games.
But if Cal expects to win, Cal has to protect Kevin Riley. Riley needs time to read through his progressions, establish a connection with his receivers, and open up the passing game. We’ve seen what has happened the last two weeks without a passing game, with nearly every facet of the offense struggling.
How do we do this? Hell if I know. I’ll lead that to our coaching staff, who I trust knows more about football and offense than I do. Perhaps it’s more double TE sets. More designed rollouts. Quick 3 step drop passing routes like slants and outs. But whatever it is, Cal has to protect Riley enough for the Stanford defense to respect that pass enough for the running game to stand any chance of opening up as well.
Oh and Riley, you have to throw the ball away at least one or two more times a game than you’ve been doing so far. If it isn’t there and you feel the heat, get rid of it, and live to play the next down with a 3rd and 8 rather than a 3rd and 16.
Slow Down Gerhart
I hate me some Stanford Cardinal. But I’m not going to lie. I’ve got some mad respect for RB Toby Gerhart. The 6’1, 232 bruiser is just so fundamentally solid it’s almost old school how he runs. He’s deceptively fast for his size, and very rarely does he not gain yardage any time he gets the ball. It’s been pretty impressive to watch.
And with Stanford’s passing offense ranking the worst in the conference with just 137.6 yards per game, Stanford isn’t shy about the fact that they’re going to run the ball, and run it often. The Cardinal have nearly a 2:1 run to pass ratio, rushing the ball 453 times on the season, versus just 248 pass attempts. Expect senior Anthony Kimble, who has rushed for 597 yards in the last seven games, to be in the mix as well.
Normally, all of this wouldn’t bode very well for a usually stout Cal run defense that has given up 191 yards per game to some of the top rushing attacks in the conference (Oregon, USC, OSU) in its past three performances.
But call me crazy, but I think Cal can hold Toby Gerhart, the conference’s second leading rusher, at bay. Cal’s defense has actually fared better against bigger backs this season, while struggling versus some of the smallish backs.
Jacquizz Rodgers (OSU): 27 rushes for 144 yards
Keola Antolin (AZ): 21 rushes for 149 yards
Jeremiah Johnson (Ore): 20 rushes 117 yards
Ryan McCants (OSU): 7 rushes for 8 yards
LaGarette Blount (Ore): 4 rushes 1 yard
Gartrell Johnson (CSU): 15 rushes for 63 yards
Kyle Bell (CSU): 13 rushes for 35 yards
All of these performances might not mean anything on Saturday, but it does instill a level of confidence that I think Cal will be physical enough to match up against Gerhart. Now if Stanford can get him to the outside, Cal’s smaller secondary may struggle in taking him down, but our linebackers should have the speed to get there and help out in a hurry.
I expect Stanford to produce on the ground. Their brand of football is physical enough to wear down defenses. But don’t be surprised if Cal can hold Gerhart from running roughshod all over the Bears all day.
And here’s hoping the Bears don’t just shut down Gerhart, and let Kimble go nuts.
No Special Teams SNAFUs
Cal’s Special Teams this year has been like dating a psycho girl. The funs times are spontaneously thrilling while the bad times are morose and downright scary. Cal has to right the ship after giving up essentially 14 points in last week’s loss to the Beavers. The good news is that Stanford doesn’t feature nearly as dangerous return men as either James Rodgers or Sammie Stroughter. Stanford punt returner Doug Baldwin, only averages 8.61 yards per return and has just 155 return yards on the season. RB Jeremy Stewart is a bit better at the kick return position, averaging just 23.4 yards on 14 returns.
It also encouraging to hear that kicker Giorgio Tavecchio had a strong day of practice on Thursday, reportedly kicking one of his kickoffs to the goal line, which is something I don’t think any Cal kicker has done all season, either in game or in practice.
Punter Bryan Anger had one of his tougher performance against the Beavers, but should be ready to bounce to back against Stanford. Anger has been the brightest spot for this year’s special teams unit, but has struggled with a bit of consistency as of late.
If the Giorgio can consistently boot the ball inside the 10, and the coverage team stays more disciplined in covering their lanes, holding the return men inside the 30, Cal should have a pretty solid day on Special Teams. And in a game that might be closer than comfort, this could be critical.
Cal comes into the game against a dangerous opponent—a team that’s probably better than their record indicates, and will be playing the game of their lives in hopes of becoming bowl eligible for the first time in seven years. There are a lot of reasons to be scared about facing team, both because of their strengths and Cal’s deficiencies.
The Bears are absolutely capable of losing their game if they’re not careful. But I think they will be. I’m cautiously optimistic Cal is capable of getting back the axe, finishing the season strong, and throwing themselves back into contention for a conference championship next year. I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but I’m residing my hope that the Bears will be able to take care of business.
If not, then geez. I wouldn’t even know what to make of it.
Go Bears! Beat the ‘Furd.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Posted by Bear with Fangs at 12:07 PM