Stanford (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) heads into the 121st Big Game against California (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) with no illusions about what side of the ball is the strength of the team, what works best for that side of the ball, and where they very much want Saturday’s rescheduled matchup (Noon, Pac-12 Networks) decided. Let’s cut to Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football David Shaw after the Cardinal’s 49-42 win over UCLA in Pasadena last Saturday. When asked about the level of comfort with the fact that his team’s big-play nature on offense had essentially become its calling card.
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“I learned a lot this year, and one of them this year is apparently my comfort level doesn’t matter. I haven’t been comfortable all year. We’ve been an enigma, but the one thing that has been consistent has been big plays in the passing game for us.” Indeed it has, and if Stanford is to win the Big Game for the ninth-straight season, that’s going to have to be the case for the Cardinal once more.
Stanford’s 31.8 points per game in Pac-12 play ranks third, coincidentally where the Golden Bears’ defense ranks in scoring defense against the Conference of Champions. Stanford’s strength is its offense, specifically its passing game, and even more specifically, it’s ability to go downtown in the passing game. Stanford has 102 pass plays of 10+ yards, 42 of 20+ and 11 of 30+. Cal’s defense allows the second-fewest yards per attempt in the Pac-12.
First, we check on Cal’s cornerbacks, because when it comes to one-on-one matchups, size matters. One thing Cal’s corners are not is tall. Camryn Bynum is 6’0”, Traveon Beck is 5’9”, Elijah Hicks is 5’11”, and Josh Drayden is 5’10”. Stanford of course counters with 6’3” JJ Arcega-Whiteside, 6’2” Trent Irwin, Michael Wilson, and Osiris St. Brown, 6’4” Simi Fehoko, and that’s before we get to 6’5” tight end Kaden Smith and 6’7” Colby Parkinson.
One thing Cal’s defensive backs are is good. Hicks is the top corner in the conference per Pro Football Focus. He’s been targeted just 29 times this season, maybe the clearest sign of respect a corner can get. Bynum is ranked #14, and Beck is #33 with the cutoff of 300 snaps eliminating Drayden. Beck is Cal’s slot cover guy. He’s lined up there on 86.5% of his snaps this season. He’s been targeted 53 times and forced four incompletions. Bynum has been targeted 10 times and forced 10 incompletions. Both Bynum and Hicks have allowed three touchdowns in coverage this year.
KJ Costello has maintained for the last two years that when he sees man coverage on the outside, the ball’s going up, and he’s held to that on the field. Cal, for its part, trusts its DB’s. Hicks is in press coverage on 38.1% of snaps this year and Bynum plays it 55.1% of the time. That leaves a chunk of snaps where Costello will have to diagnose what Cal is showing him aside from man, and that brings us to the issue of Cal’s ability to bring pressure.
This game is going to come down to the Golden Bears’ ability to “heat up” Stanford’s QB. Cal, on the season, blitzes on 40.4% of its downs and generates pressure on 35.3% of its downs. When you dig deep into PFF’s analysis of Justin Wilcox and Tim DeRuyter’s defense, one thing is clear: Cal doesn’t get there without bringing extra peeps.
In their celebrated win over USC, Cal blitzed on 55.3% of its downs and forced a pressure rate of 26.3%, produced five unblocked pressures, four sacks, and 10 overall pressures. In their four most successful games in terms of generating pressure (ranges from 50-63% pressure generated against Arizona, UCLA, Oregon State, and Washington), Cal’s blitz rate was 45% and above in each game. Expect the Golden Bears to bring the house early and often on Saturday.
The good news for Stanford is that Costello has done very good work against the blitz this season. Costello is completing 65% of his passes and averaging over nine yards per attempt against the blitz. Costello’s 78.3 NFL Passer Rating against pressure is third-best in the conference this year (Arizona’s Khalil Tate is the best at 85.9) and the conference average is 60. So we know KJ can handle the heat, but can his offensive line?
Stanford has been blitzed on 35.2% of downs this season and allowed pressure on 26.5%, which is below the conference average of 30%. Stanford has allowed 20 unblocked pressures through 10 games. The two teams that blitzed Stanford the most (Utah and Oregon State) had mixed success. Both had overall pressure rates of under 30%, but the Utes did get 11 quick pressures (2nd-most of the year against the Cardinal) while the Beavers could only get four. Clearly, talent plays a role in all of this along with tactics.
Another issue Stanford will likely confront is stunting. Wil-Ruyter have been wildly varied in the games they play up front. Against WSU, Cal stunted on 43.1% of its snaps (but blitzed less than usual) and against Colorado, they stunted on 48.6% of snaps. In their blitz-happy game against USC, they only stunted 15.8% of the time. Washington stunted on 42.2% of its snaps vs. Stanford and forced nine quick pressures, the most in the last five games against the Cardinal. Expect blitzes, and expect more twists than an Agatha Christie novel from Cal on Saturday. The good news is that Stanford, as Costello said immediately after the game, played its best pass pro game of the season last week. UCLA blitzed on 36% of downs but only managed 12% pressure rate and one quick pressure the entire game. Stanford’s pass pro seems to be at its best as the season concludes, though aside from the Utes and Notre Dame, it’s been pretty good this season.
This is such a compelling matchup because both teams are going to have their fates settled on the side of the ball they prefer and in the manner they prefer. Can blitz-happy Cal’s strong corners hold up against the Cardinal’s Air Bully Attack?
We find out tomorrow at high noon.
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R.J. Abeytia has been contributing to The Bootleg since 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Abeytia and follow The Bootleg @TheBootleg for up to the moment Cardinal news and analysis.
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