1. Sonny Dykes has obviously had an excellent second season at Cal - what do you think is the biggest reason for the Bears' leap this year?
boomtho: Few reasons for the big leap. First, the offense, while good last year, has gone to great this year. That improvement stems from a few factors - pretty significant OL improvement (especially in the run game), the maturation of Goff and his receivers, and the ability to actually run the damn ball with some success. The second big factor is defensive improvement. Now, we are not a good defense by any means, but we've gone from a dumpster fire to... whatever is slightly less than a dumpster fire. New DC Art Kaufman has done a nice job improving the scheme while accounting for a true lack of talent and depth, most acutely on the DL and in the secondary. He's gone much more to a 'bend but don't break' philosophy, where the Bears concede short passes (especially screens) but are doing a much better job not getting beat.
Nick Kranz: There are a few different reasons, of course. But in terms of picking one, I think the biggest is experience, both in terms of having players that a year older, and in terms of having players that have a year in the Dykes/Franklin offensive system. Last year you could see the latent talent on offense, as well as a generally sound offensive system. But there were constant mistakes. Big, drive killing mistakes. With a year of practice and experience, those mistakes have more often than not been replaced by good plays, or even big plays.
2. Last year at this time, there wasn't a lot of positivity around the Cal program. What's the mood like now?
boomtho: A lot better, definitely! The Bears are 5-5 and have been pretty darn competitive in two of the losses as well - losing to Arizona on a Hail Mary and having a potential game winning drive against UCLA halted by a questionable interception. There's been some positive recruiting momentum as well (Russell Ude's commitment will be huge if it sticks). The fact the Bears have a decent chance at going bowling is pretty awesome.
Nick Kranz: Hope and optimism tempered with an underlying layer of cynicism that has always (and perhaps will always) be a part of the Cal fan base. The team has clearly improved by leaps and bounds, and there are logical reasons to assume more improvement next year. But there is also an awareness that there are certain issues (coughdefensecough) that might require longer term solutions. And since this team has lost 4 straight to Stanford, 3 out of 4 to UCLA, and 11 straight to USC, patience isn't exactly at an all-time high.
3. Jared Goff has been almost unstoppable at times - what do you think his ceiling is as a quarterback?
boomtho: I think he has the skills to be an NFL QB, honestly. I think he'll get branded with the 'System QB' label because of the perceptions of the Bear Raid, but Goff is nearly a complete QB. He's got good arm strength, excellent touch on his deep balls, has improved his mobility in the pocket pretty significantly in one year, and continues to get better at making progressions and reading the field. In college, his ceiling is owning every Cal passing record that matters (except for wins, probably).
Nick Kranz: That's a really really hard question to answer. To be quite honest, I think his ceiling is a Marcus Mariota/Andrew Luck type of Heisman contention season. That isn't to say that he WILL put up numbers and passing efficiency at that level. But I think in a perfect world - with a strong offensive line, a deep, talented group of receivers, and a consistent running game - it's within the realm of possibility. He's already probably had the greatest ever season for a true frosh and true sophomore in Cal history, so it feels unwise to put limits on a guy who is already doing things that don't really have any parallels in program history.
4. Who are the playmakers on offense that the Stanford defense should be concerned about?
boomtho: One of the key players is RB Daniel Lasco. He has improved his vision, receiving skills, and ability to run hard, and that coupled with the OL improvement has made him a threat to break off big plays all year. It's a bit harder to answer this questions for the WR's because the Bears are so deep. There are WR's that can beat you deep (Lawler and Davis), can carve you up with precise route running and screens (Harper, Treggs), have shown a really nice ability to find holes in the zone and keep the chains moving (Stephen Anderson)...and that doesn't account for talented but inconsistent guys like Powe, Harris, and Hudson.
Nick Kranz: It's hard to narrow it down to just one wide receiver because the ball tends to get spread around pretty well. But Kenny Lawler is a guy who can stretch the field and come up with some crazy catches on the sideline or in the endzone. Stephen Anderson is Cal's possession receiver and is the closest thing the offense has to a tight end. From a Cal perspective, Daniel Lasco is the most important guy, because when he's productive on the ground and as a pass catcher Cal's offense is significantly more balaned and dynamic than when he's not.
5. What is going on with the Bears defense?
boomtho: I alluded to this earlier, but there are a few factors at play. First, there is a pretty noticeable lack of depth at both the DL and secondary positions. This is partially due to attrition (e.g., Chris McCain getting kicked off the team) and partially due to injuries (Scarlett's knee). In the secondary, we've been with a rash of injuries - in fact, one of our starters, Caleb Coleman (a converted WR), is replacing Griffin Piatt, a former walk on safety.
In addition to the injuries, the Bears pass rush has just been horrendous. That has made the secondary look a lot worse than they probably are.
Despite those negatives, Kaufman is doing a pretty decent job IMO. He's employing a pretty vanilla scheme and trying his best to take away deep routes. That leads to some frustrating coverages (against USC, they went screen after screen to Agholor)... but I'm not sure what else Kaufman is supposed to do.
Kaufman has also done job with the run defense, where frankly we have a bit more talent - Clark and Jalil on the DL and LB's Nickerson, Barton, and even safety Lowe are better in run support than against the pass.
Nick Kranz: Mostly it's just a lack of talent. Cal has had a lot of roster attrition over the last two years for various reasons (injuries, academics, early draft declarations, etc.) and the defense has been hit much harder than the offense. Coaching has improved this year, and players are generally in position to make plays, but frequently lack the talent and/or experience to follow through.
Most damning of all is Cal's complete and utter lack of a pass rush. Quarterbacks have been able to sit back in the pocket and find open receivers with complete impunity. Blitzing never works either, and usually just results in longer completions when there are less defenders in the secondary to make a tackle. I actually think Cal's secondary is vastly improved, but the numbers don't bear it out because any good quarterback (of which the Pac-12 has many) will pick apart any secondary with as much time as Cal has given them.
6. Do you expect the Cal offense to be able to move the ball on the Stanford defense?
boomtho: This is a tough one. UW, with their NFL talent on the DL, completely stoned Cal and pressured Goff all day. The first half of USC was similar, with Leonard Williams wreaking havoc. However, Cal made some nice adjustments in the second half, including rolling the pocket more to alleviate the pressure. I think Cal eventually will be able to move the ball - the question for me is whether it takes a half (like USC), in which case we may already be behind a ton.
Nick Kranz: Depends on what you mean by 'move.' I certainly don't expect Cal to put up production on the level of, say, Oregon. But I do think it's possible for Cal to move the ball much in the fashion of Arizona State
7. What is the deal with "Furd"? What is the story behind changing the U to an O?
boomtho: No idea.
Nick Kranz: I'll give you the same answer I gave to another Stanford site that asked the same question: There's nothing much to explain about 'Stanfurd' (which, for the record, I don't really use). It's an insult of the most childish type of derision, and roughly similar to the many Stanford fans that favor 'Kal' when discussing the Bears.
8. What is your favorite Big Game tradition?
boomtho: My favorite part of the Big Game is how it unites the fanbase like no other. Former Cal players, current students, writer extraordinaire Mike Silver... everyone gets excited and amped to play this game. I also love the general across the board success these two universities have - despite all the barbs, these really are two of the most highly regarded schools in the world, with fantastic success in Olympic sports and pretty incredible alumni bases. Last, I love how every Big Game, I get to see tons of coverage of the Play!
Nick Kranz: I love the colored lights that decorate major landmarks around campus all week, and the cool light projections on the Campanile. It's a beautiful reminder of the spirit that infuses everything around a campus that othewise struggles to feel unified most of the year.
9. What are the keys to a Cal victory?
boomtho: Moving the ball on first down, making Hogan feel at least a little uncomfortable, and not letting Ty Montgomery score 5 TD's would be a good start. Protecting Goff will also be critical.
Nick Kranz: Key 1: Great special teams play. Field position will matter in this game, because I think both offenses (for different reasons!) will be hard pressed to drive 80+ yards. Key 2: Turnovers. A lazy, obvious key, but still important! Cal's best bet would be for the struggling Stanford offense to hand over the ball in great field position (see Key 1!), while if Cal turns the ball over the game could turn into a complete rout. Key 3: Big plays. Cal's offense thrives best when it can make big plays, but Stanford's defense tends to shut that type of thing down. Conversely, Stanford's offense is almost terminally allergic to big plays, while Cal's defense allows them with aplomb. Which trend holds on both sides of the ball?