Any discussion about the Cal offense has to start with quarterback Jared Goff. We know he's an elite talent and will probably be snapped up early if he decides to enter the draft. He also has a great corps of receivers, including Kenny Lawler, Bryce Treggs, and Stephen Anderson. Goff and his receivers started the season strong but definitely struggled against Utah, UCLA, USC, and Oregon. Then they bounced back against Oregon State. Why did the Cal offense have such a tough time in those four games? Stanford did a pretty good job shutting down the Goff-led Bear Raid the past two years, so is there reason to think this year will be different?
boomtho: UW kind of revealed the blueprint to slow down the Bear Raid, and those teams you mentioned were able to follow it pretty well.
It starts with teams leaving two high safeties to take away the vertical threats Cal has on the outside. Second, it involves the corners pressing (bump and run) to take away the quick hitting plays. Third, the teams that were successful against us were able to consistently generate pressure with 4 rushers, removing the need to blitz.
Honestly, most Cal fans thought our receivers were truly great at the beginning of the year. I think that opinion has evolved somewhat as our WR's have struggled to generate separation against the scheme described above. They're certainly very good - don't get me wrong - but more often than not, Goff and our receivers have to make plays in tight windows because they can't actually get that open.
I am not familiar with Stanford's this year - my impression is it's pretty good, but a step below the defenses of a few years ago. If that's the case, the game may come down to whether the thin Stanford-DL can generate pressure.
Tell us about the Cal running game, which has also been inconsistent this year. Cal seems to use Khalfani Muhammad, Vic Enwere, and Daniel Lasco regularly. Who should we expect to see the most on Saturday, and in which situations? Have Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin done a good job of incorporating the running game into the pass-happy Bear Raid?
boomtho: Lasco entered the year as the clear starter after a great, 1,000 yard rushing season last year. However, he hurt his hip early in the year and has struggled ever since. In that absence, we haven't seen a clear lead back step up. All of the RB's you mentioned have shined in spurts, and they all have pretty distinct pluses and minuses. Khlafani has by far the best top-end speed, though he struggles a bit inside the tackles and is not a super polished receiver. Vic Enwere can bring the most power, but has struggled to break tackles consistently, and he doesn't really have breakaway speed. Tre Watson lives somewhere in the middle, and appears to be growing into the receiving role.
I can't really predict how Cal will deploy these guys during the game. If everyone was healthy, I would have guessed we would have seen a lot of Khlafani, given the success Oregon had attacking the edge. However, both Lasco and Khalfani are banged up, and Sonny has said that Watson and Enwere will get the bulk of the carries.
The notion of the Bear-Raid being super pass-happy is a bit misleading. Cal has run the ball 47% of the time this year, and some people have actually criticized us for getting a bit too run-happy when we've had only middling success.
Last, I'll add that I think it ultimately comes down whether our OL can win the battle at the line of scrimmage and get into the second level to make blocks (clichéd, but true!)
The Cal defense this year has been a little unpredictable. After Cal's 5-0 start, it looked like it might be one of the stronger units in the conference, and the turnaround from the awful defense we saw two years ago appeared nothing short of remarkable. Then the defense surrendered 573 yards to UCLA and a record 777 to Oregon. How do you expect the Cal defense will try to contain Stanford? Will it be successful?
boomtho: Cal has certainly struggled in the second half of the schedule. In particular, we've struggled against the more spread-oriented teams like UCLA and Oregon. That comes down to a slight lack of speed, particularly among the LB's, and a general trend of poor tackling in space. Given that Stanford is a bit less spread-oriented, I'm cautiously optimistic that the Cal defense can perform OK this weekend. I don't think they'll be dominant, and I doubt they will force a lot of turnovers (that source of points has certainly dried up), but I think they can avoid getting gashed like the Oregon game.
Who are a couple of players we might not have heard much about but who might make an impact in the Big Game?
boomtho: Hmm, I'll go with WR's Maurice Harris or Darius Powe on offense and DT Mustafa Jaliil on defense. Harris and Powe have seen their playing time and contributions increase as Lawler and Davis have been banged up. On defense, Jalil is a mammoth interior lineman, one who will be critical to Cal's efforts to slow the Cardinal running game.
Like last year, Cal got out to fast start this season, only to suffer an extended losing streak. But now Cal is bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. Presumably a win over Stanford and bowl victory would make this a successful season, but losing out would not. Sonny Dykes has made progress with this team, both on the field and in the classroom, but how does the fan base feel about him? Is he the guy to lead Cal football for the foreseeable future?
boomtho: Yes, I agree that beating Stanford would make this a successful season. However, even if we lose this weekend, I think beating ASU and wining a bowl game, which would put us at 8-5, would constitute a successful season as well.
Fan opinion is certainly mixed about Coach Dykes. First, everyone agrees that he's done a tremendous job turning around the academic problems that marked the end of Coach Tedford's tenure at Cal. Most agree he's also done a wonderful job changing the culture of the team and their attitude towards the school - acts like running out with the California flag, conducting the band after wins, and singing the fight song have all shown an increased dedication to engaging the fans.
An assessment of his on-field results has to be more mixed. While it's pretty clear he inherited a bare cupboard, and the wins have increased every year, we still haven't seen any kind of breakthrough win against a California school/Oregon. We're getting closer - that much is true and encouraging - but I can certainly understand fans who think Coach Dykes is not the guy to get us to the next level.
However, fan concern is secondary to what the AD and big donors think. This week, news started coming out that the AD was working on an extension for Coach Dykes. While the terms are unknown, it appears that he WILL be the person to lead Cal for the next few years.
How do you see this game playing out? Does Cal, confident after thrashing Oregon State, have a chance to pull the upset against a Stanford team that just endured a hard-fought, tough loss?
boomtho: If I had to guess, I'd say Stanford wins this game. However, I think Cal has its best chance in a few years to actually pull the upset. The defense has improved from apocalyptic to average(ish), and the offense, while it has underachieved, has the potential to make a lot of noise. I'm just hoping for a close game headed into the 4th.