After Stanford's up-and-down performances over the last couple weeks - a scary overtime win over Arizona bookended by two brutal road losses - it's pretty safe to say that the Cardinal will be hoping for a more complete performance this week in order to keep the Axe on the Farm.
In preparation for Saturday's Big Game, I reviewed tape from Cal's games against Ohio State, USC and UCLA to get a little insight into just how these two teams will attack one another in Berkeley.
First, I started by reviewing the Bears' game film against Ohio State in Columbus, where the Buckeyes barely scraped out a 35-28 win.
On the whole, this game was extremely interesting because quarterback Zach Maynard and the rest of the offense played really well - they racked up 512 total yards - until a late Maynard interception doomed Cal's hopes for an upset.
Altogether, the Bears' offense is pretty simple - and they run all of their plays from variations on two formations.
The first is a single-back set with Maynard under center:
The second is a shotgun formation where the running back stands to the left or right of Maynard:
From those two sets, the Bears run basically five plays - all of which try to get the ball to backs and receivers as quickly as possible. Here are those five plays:
1. The running back runs off the right tackle.
2. A play-action pass where Maynard fakes the handoff to the right, rolls to his left and dumps a pass off to the fullback.
3. A quick slant or stick route to Keenan Allen.
4. A tunnel or bubble screen to a receiver (usually Allen).
5. A passing play where the running back slips out of the backfield and Maynard dumps it off.
These plays work for the Bears because, as usual, Cal has some really fast, really talented skill players. Jeff Tedford has four guys who could be excellent players or even superstars anywhere else in the country: Keenan Allen, Isi Sofele, CJ Anderson, and Brandon Bigelow.
(Side note: If this is Tedford's last year in Berkeley, someone needs to snap him up as a recruiting coordinator pronto. The guy has an eye for talent. The first class he recruited at Cal graduated in 2006, and since that time, 33 former Bears are now playing in the NFL. That's damn impressive. Also: Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson, Jahvid Best.)
Here's an example of how Cal uses these quick plays in "Play No. 5."
At the snap, the Buckeyes bring a blitz - five rushers - up right the middle to try and bring pressure right in Maynard's face on third down. CJ Anderson stands to Maynard's left.
Just as the rushers start getting pressure, Anderson slips out of the backfield and dashes up the field, juking the linebacker so hard that he falls over.
Anderson catches the ball with lots of open space and races to the end zone.
Although the play ended up being called back because of a penalty, it still represents the Cal offense at its most dangerous - and it shows something the Cardinal must pay attention to on Saturday.
Stanford can't afford to blow assignments like the Ohio State linebacker did in the play above - missed assignments will turn into six points on the scoreboard. To do that, the Stanford linebackers and defensive backs must keep all of these fast players in front of them by using lots of drop-back zone coverages like the Stanford defense did in last year's Big Game.
For example: In the first quarter of last year's Big Game, the Cardinal tried to have safety Michael Thomas cover the explosive Allen by himself, and Allen ended up catching six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. Stanford stopped single-covering Allen after the first quarter, and he finished the day with six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
However, despite how good the Bears' fast guys are, there's one serious kink in Cal's offense: the offensive line. All of these plays are designed to get the ball out of Maynard's hands quickly because the Cal offensive line struggles to block anybody for more than two or three seconds. The weakest link on their line is left tackle Tyler Rigsbee, a fact that likely has Cardinal linebackers like Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas licking their chops.
Here's Rigsbee getting whipped on a pass play:
Here he is getting dominated on a run play:
The defensive end pushes Rigsbee to the side and is deep in the backfield by the time the running back receives the handoff.
And, for good measure, another missed block on a pass play:
However, the quality of Rigsbee's blocking doesn't matter if Maynard is able to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Remember "Play No. 5," the dump pass to the halfback out of the backfield? It's the Bears' great equalizer - especially on third down.
Here's the pre-snap look:
And the play in action. Watch the running back sneak out of the backfield:
Again, Rigsbee is totally beaten by the defensive end on this play, but CJ Anderson (circled in red) slips out of the backfield and busts off a big gain that keeps the drive alive.
This play is a great example of how Stanford must remain balanced on Saturday. The Cardinal can bring all the pressure it wants, but if it can't stop Anderson, Allen and others on those quick passes, Stanford could be in for another Arizona-esque shootout.
So after watching all of this tape, a game plan emerges for the Stanford defense on Saturday if it wants to keep the Axe.
1. Stick to the fundamentals. Defenders on the backside of a play need to stay at home and not over-pursue the Cal runners.
2. Keep all wide receivers and running backs in front of you. Don't miss tackles on the second level. Do not allow dump-downs to the running back to go for big gains.
3. Blitz the left side of the line in obvious passing downs, or have your best pass rusher go against the left tackle. Force Rigsbee to make snap decisions, and the Stanford defense will be able to sack Maynard over and over again.
On the flip side of the ball, the story is much the same: Cal's line isn't very good.
The Bears' front line simply doesn't get a lot of penetration into the backfield or a lot of pressure on the quarterback. To wit: Against USC, the Bears didn't sack Matt Barkley a single time and the Trojans rushed for 296 yards. Ouch.
So what does that mean? It means that the Stanford running game should be in for a big day on Saturday.
Here's an example of how USC pounded the Bears on the ground. On this play, Silas Redd goes off the left side for an easy touchdown thanks to great blocking from his linemen, his tight ends and his wide receivers.
Here's the play's setup:
And here it is in action:
This is textbook blocking from the Trojans, and so long as the Cardinal stay committed to running the ball, it can definitely replicate USC's success on the ground and run away with a win. (Of course, we all know that Stanford will be committed to running the ball. Maybe a little too committed. Four straight runs at the goal line? Really? Against a team that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown all year?)
However, even though Cal's linemen aren't very good, the Bears are able to cause problems on defense when they bring huge blitzes.
Let's take a quick look at the Bears' against UCLA, where Cal whipped the No. 25 Bruins, 43-17.
Cal blitzed Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley over and over again, rattling the freshman and forcing him to make quick decisions all night long. The Bears' strategy worked to perfection - Hundley threw four interceptions and lost a fumble, and UCLA fell from the ranks of the Top 25.
But let's examine a couple of those blitzes a little closer.
First, let's look at an red zone interception Hundley threw just before halftime. At the snap, six Bears charge off the line, leaving every UCLA receiver in man-to-man coverage.
Hundley looked right and hurriedly flung the ball into the end zone, way over the head of both receivers, where Cal's deep safety intercepted it. But look at the tape a little closer, and you'll see that Cal's blitz left a UCLA receiver wide open. If Hundley had been on the mark to his inside receiver, this could have been a touchdown.
Let's look at another play from the fourth quarter where Hundley was strip-sacked with the Bruins down 29-17.
At the snap, Cal again brings five pass-rushers.
As the pressure mounts, Hundley freezes and shrinks away from the rush, leaving the ball exposed to be knocked out of his hands. But all he needed to do was stand tall in the pocket and deliver a short pass to another open receiver running a short inside route (yellow circle).
Here's the look from the end zone view. As you can see, Hundley could have delivered this ball to his receiver for a positive gain, but ended up putting it on the ground for a costly turnover.
These kinds of mistakes were ultimately what cost UCLA a shot at winning the game.
So what does this mean for Stanford on Saturday? It means that the Bears will probably try and rattle Josh Nunes the same way that they rattled Hundley - with big blitzes on passing downs that will force the oft-inaccurate Nunes to make quick decisions with the football. As we've seen from the tape, though, these blitzes will leave the defense vulnerable, and if Nunes is able to hit a few of his passes against the blitz, the Cardinal offense could be primed for a huge day.