December 1, 2006

We want The Axe!

This year's Big Game is expected to be so lopsided that some Cal fans are actually bemoaning how it might ruin the tradition of the series. Screw that, I say. Things go in cycles, and Stanford is in a down cycle while Cal is in an up cycle. I am riding the joy because I know it will cycle back some day. It's the nature of college sports. With scholarship limitations and having to turn over the entire roster every five years, teams tend not to be too down or too up for too long.

All that said, time to revel in Stanford's state of abject woefulness while we have it.

The Bears are a 29 point favorite, and the over-under is 46 points. That means the bookies don't give Stanford much chance to score more than, say, a couple of field goals or maybe a kickoff return for a touchdown. Given the strength of Cal's kicking game, it is quite possible that Stanford not only doesn't score, but that they might not even make an appearance in Cal's end of the field.

OK, OK, Cal lost to Arizona. The difference: Arizona isn't all that bad. They were, but then they got their quarterback back from injury, and they matured. They beat Cal, Oregon, and WSU in a string. It is possible that Stanford could start their own string tomorrow. But don't count on it.

Stanford has improved in the second half of the season. In the first half, they were giving up a laughable 455 yards per game. Now, though, they've trimmed that to a respectable 315 yards per game in the last five games. Stanford's nonconference slate included bowl-bound San Jose State, Navy, and BCS-bound Notre Dame. Their only win was a 20 to 3 dismantling of the Washington Huskies on the road on November 11th. The following week they returned to form to get blasted by an Oregon State squad that had just lost at UCLA.

Statistically, Stanford is last in the conference in seven of eight major categories. They have the dead-last offense and are awful at defense except in passing yards per game, where they are a surprising #2 in the conference. This may be due to the fact, however, that teams have run so successfully on the Cardinal that they haven't had to pass. Opponents have rushed 486 times against Stanford for 4.9 yards per carry. Compare that to the rest of the league, which on the whole average 382 running plays by opponents. Meanwhile, the Cardinal's opponents have attempted only 294 passes; the other 9 pac-10 teams have faced an average of 357 passes. Basically, Stanford's opponents get so far ahead that they spend the second half of the game running the ball to kill the clock. And they do it successfully. (Stanford averages 4:20 less in possession time than their opponents.)

It's almost pointless to go deeper into the stats. Stanford went a month without an offensive touchdown at one point. They average 10.0 points per game, second-worst in division 1-A. They give up nearly 32 points per game, worst in the Pac-10 by far. Cal is the highest-scoring offense in the league at 32.4 ppg, but the defense has given up 20.4. Good but not stellar. Facing a woeful offense like Stanford's, Cal's defensive speed should dominate.

When the Bears do go to the air, they bring the league's second most efficient passing attack. Stanford's pass defense efficiency is terrible, 9th in the Pac-10. They allow 62% completion (worst by far) and have given up 13 TDs to just 7 interceptions. While 13 passing TDs is pretty good, the 7 interceptions is very low... and the TDs are offset by the fact that Stanford has given up 26 rushing TDs, which is 8 more than the second-worst in that category. Half the league has given up 11 or fewer rushing TDs on the season. Stanford's 26 is a real head-shaker. Teams don't have to pass for touchdowns; they just run the ball in.

An interesting comparison is that Stanford is not the worst in the league in yards given up per play. The worst is... California. Cal gives up 5.8 yards per play on average, while Stanford gives up 5.5. Both are awful (4.9 or better would be considered good).

Perhaps the biggest bane to Stanford this year (besides injuries) has been turnovers. Stanford is dead last (again) in the Pac at -10 overall. Only Oregon has fared as poorly. The Bears sit fourth in the league at +5.

A glance at one of the stats pages from this week's Pac-10 football release tells a compelling story. Of the twelve statistical tables on the page, Stanford is last in nine of them (Turnover margin, first downs, opponent first downs, 3rd-down conversion, opponent 3rd-down conversion, sacks by, sacks against, field goals, and PAT kicking) and 9th in one (pass defense efficiency). The two tables where they are not at the bottom relate to penalties. Stanford is the league's least penalized team, and Stanford's opponents get penalized about an average amount of time.

Stanford is also last in red zone offense, appearing there just 22 times this season and scoring only SIX touchdowns. Compare that to the next-worst team, Arizona, with 29 appearances and fifteen touchdowns. This means that of Stanford's 11 offensive touchdowns, five were scored from outside the red zone. I don't think the Bears will give up any of those on Saturday; the team speed on defense is astounding.

The Bears have 22 red zone TDs in 35 appearances. This means that Cal has scored 17 touchdowns from outside the red zone. The Bears have as many red zone touchdowns as Stanford has red zone appearances, and Cal has scored nearly as many outside-the-red-zone TDs as Stanford has red zone appearances. Yikes. Talk about a discrepancy.

On the other side, Stanford's red zone defense is just as bad. Their opponents have shown up in the red zone a whopping 53 times and scored an eye-popping 34 touchdowns while visiting. Compare to Cal, who have allowed opponents into their red zone only 29 times overall and have given up only 14 touchdowns on those tries. An interesting thing is that Stanford has given up only five offensive touchdowns this year from outside their red zone. This, of course, is in keeping with the idea that teams tend to run the ball successfully at the Cardinal. Run a lot, and you're likely to end up inside the 20 at some point. In addition, it's interesting to see that of the 34 TDs they've given up inside the red zone, 24 are rushing TDs. This means that they give up more rushing TDs from within the red zone than the number of times their offense has appeared in the opponent's red zone.

Are we getting the picture yet?

Here's a cool stat: Cal has made 44 of 44 PAT kick attempts. Stanford has attempted just 13 and made only 11. Egads.

Another: Stanford has kicked off just 27 times. Eliminate 11 for having to kick off at least once each game to start a half, and you're left with 16 scores in 11 games. The Bears have kicked off 65 times, which makes 54 scores in 11 games. Holy smokes.

No wonder the point spread is 29.

The good news for the Cardinal, and the tough call for those considering wagering on the game, is that the Bears already have their bowl invitation sewn up. They can't improve by running up the score. There is only the need to win the game and to get all the seniors on the field at some point. If the Bears take a big lead into the second half, expect to see second- and third-string players the rest of the way. Running up the score is not coach Tedford's style, and it serves no valuable purpose in this game. So, while I'd like to see Cal hang a hundred on the ailing Cardinal, it ain't gonna happen.

Final score: Cal 49, Stanford 6.

Go Bears!

No comments: