November 19, 2004

Cal v Stanford

This game has more similarity with Cal versus Oregon than with Cal versus Washington. Cal was a heavy favorite in both, but the spread was only justified against UW. I think Stanford is underrated and could prove a real test for the Bears.

Cal: #4 BCS, #4 AP, #4 Coaches
Stan: Not Ranked in any poll

Sagarin ranks Cal #3 (96.58) and Stanford #37 (76.06). With the home advantage, that makes Cal a 24-point favorite. The odds makers agree. But they also all agreed that Oregon was a 21-point underdog, and that was another team that looked good on paper but which had failed to live up to their potential.

We all know of Cal's offensive dominance this season. Ranked #1 in the Pac-10 in rushing offense, total offense, pass efficiency, and scoring offense, with 47 touchdowns and a remarkable 38 points per game. We know Cal's tendency to come out flat in the first half and then dominate with a power rushing offense in the second half to take control of games. In nine games, Cal has outscored opponents 167 to 34 in the second half; in the first half, it's been 173-91. In large part, the second half disparity is due to Cal's tremendous ball and clock control, rolling up first downs rushing and simply not allowing opponents to have the ball.

Cal has failed to score 30 points in only three games: USC (loss, 23-17), ASU (win, 27-0), and Oregon (win, 28-27). The Bears have scored 40 or more in five of their nine games. Meanwhile, only three opponents have scored more than 20 points on the Bears: USC, UCLA (win, 45-28), and Oregon. Cal has held their six other opponens to 14 or fewer points, shutting out the Arizona schools.

This is a damn good team, there is no doubt. The only weakness is the kicking game. The Bears have excellent kickoff coverage, but they give up field position with kicks that come down at the 10 yard line. Cal kickers have missed 7 of 12 field goals, some in crucial situations (think Oregon and USC games). Although the first miss was over 50 yards, most of the others have been in the 35-yard range.

Cal fans can be forgiven if they feel confident that Cal will retain the axe and cruise into their final game at Southern Miss after Thanksgiving. Yet Stanford, for all their problems, are not as bad as they may appear.

The Cardinal are third in the conference in scoring defense, 24th nationally, at 19.2 points per game. They missed Arizona this year, so those stats were compiled against some pretty good teams.

Only two teams have scored 30 or more against Stanford: USC (Stanford lost, 31-28), and ASU (Stanford lost, 34-31). Four of Stanford's five Pac-10 losses are by five points or less: USC (3 points), Oregon (3 points), ASU (3 points), and OSU (5 points). Only UCLA dominated by shutting out the Cardinal, 21-0. (Only Oklahoma State held the Bruins to fewer points (20) than Stanford did.) Stanford has held five opponents under 20 points and eight opponents to 24 or fewer. They are also 3rd in the conference in red zone defense, holding opponents to 17 touchdowns in 35 tries (also 7 field goals). Stanford has a pretty good defense which should not be misunderestimated.

Unfortunately for the Cardinal, their offense hasn't held up the other end. They have virtually no rushing offense (87 yards per game), and while they're 3rd in the conference in passing offense at 256 yards per game, they have 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and they are only 7th in pass efficiency. They're 8th in total offense with 343 yards per game (ahead of only UW and Arizona), and 7th in scoring offense at 23.6 points per game.

Stanford has been held to -8 yards rushing (Oregon), 1 yard rushing (OSU), and 37 yards rushing (ASU). In their last four games, they have a total of 113 yards rushing (28.25 yards per game). They have just two rushing TDs in those games and just 9 rushing TDs against everyone except SJSU. They are at a lowly 2.7 yards per rushing attempt, better than only Oregon State.

Stanford also gains just 17.9 first downs per game and have scored just 18 TDs in 36 trips to the red zone. Finally, they're the most-sacked team in the league as well with 3.4 per game.

With such terrible offensive statistics, their 4-6 record is not surprising, but they have been very competitive in most of their losses. This is due to their defense, and an overall +9 turnover margin. In addition, their kickoff return team is among the best in the nation, and they're the only Pac-10 team with a kickoff return for a touchdown. TJ Rushing is 6th in the nation at kickoff returns, and as a team the Cardinal are 8th in the nation.

I think the Cal defense should smother Stanford's offense. Cal is #2 in rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense. Stanford may come out strong in the first half, but without a running game and going against athletic defensive backs and Cal's outstanding safeties, I just don't see a breakout game. They would need their QB and O line to be on fire like Oregon's were against the Bears, and even with that they probably do not have enough. They would need tremendous help from special teams and turnovers to get consistently good field position as USC did in order to stay close.

The real battle will be Cal's offensive line against the Stanford 3-4 defense. Stanford is actually pretty terrible in pass defense, last in the league with 257 yards. They do have 16 interceptions to 11 TDs allowed, however. They allow the second-highest completion percentage in the Pac (58.6%) and the second-highest yards-per-catch average (7.2). About two thirds of the first downs they allow are through the air. If the Bears can establish any sort of running game and occupy the linebackers with concentrating on the rush, they should have plenty of open passing opportunities.

I think this game plays out like many of Cal's victories this year. The opponent will stay close in the first half, but the Bears will begin to dominate with outstanding rushing and sheer physical fitness in the second half. If the Bears don't turn the ball over and can contain kickoffs well, then they should have the advantage in all phases of the game. If they suffer turnovers, however, or hand good field position to the Cardinal on every possession, the game could play out much more like the Oregon game than the Washington game.

We all know that Stanford view this as their "bowl" game, and that Cal has not won three Big Games in a row since the 50s. Yet both teams have everything to play for, and the crowd will be intense from the opening baton toss. This also plays to the Bears' favor. Finally, I think Aaron Rodgers plays a game comparable to how he played against USC. Although he doesn't have the same receivers to throw to, he's had a few games with them and should eliminate the interceptions he's been throwing the past few games.

In the end, Cal should keep the Axe. While I do think Stanford is underrated due to their strong defense, I also think the Bears will be focused and hungry and will again push 40 points. Arrington will have a hard time getting his tenth century of the year, but he will get it late in the second half. The Bear defense will dominate a weak Stanford offense and could have their third shutout of the year, but I think Stanford will score a few.

My prediction: Cal 36, Stanford 13.

Go Bears!

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