BERKELEY -- Only one starter on Cal's defensive line started against the Cardinal in last year's Big Game -- defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil. Tony Mekari Mekari also started in that game, and in all, seven of Cal's 12 men on the two-deep up front saw action. This isn't, says defensive line coach Fred Tate, a different Stanford team, but they do have a new weapon: Christian McCaffrey, who's going to be as much trouble to defend in the slot as he is running between the tackles.
"It's the same team; that's a system over there," Tate says. "They don't change very much. It's not a secret what they're doing. They're not going to beat themselves. They're going to line up and play fundamental football, and will you to make a mistake, and, once you do, you pay for it, with a good running back like they've got, and a solid offensive line like they've got."
McCaffrey is so dangerous because he is so versatile. He's averaging 241.8 all-purpose yards per game, and, if he holds out, would be the fifth player in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision since 1978 to finish a season averaging over 200 all-purpose yards per game.
"I think when you sit and look at him, he's one of the most complete players in college football," says head coach Sonny Dykes. "Great punt returner great kick returner, a unique guy because he's such a good receiver coming out of the backfield. He runs really disciplined, sharp, very precise routes ... He can beat you a lot of different ways. They'll split him out some, play him at receiver, screens, obviously carry the ball in the backfield, just get him the ball a lot of different ways. He's one of those guys that, I think he's got great football instincts, when you look at him."
As a receiver -- where he saw many of his reps last season (42 rushes and 17 catches) -- McCaffrey is also effective. He's averaging 11.1 yards per reception this year, with 367 yards on 33 catches. In last year's Big Game, he caught two balls for 34 yards, and rushed three times for 19 yards.
Stanford is tops in the Pac-12 in third-down conversion percentage (49.6%), and that's partially due to McCaffrey, who's averaging 5.2 yards per carry on third down. Part of the reason why the Cardinal are able to convert so many third downs is the fact that they are nails on first down, again, thanks to McCaffrey. The sophomore out of Castle Rock, Colo., has carried the ball a staggering 147 times on first down, more than twice as many as on any other down, gaining an average of 5.3 yards per carry. He's also caught 11 balls on first down, for 155 yards (14.1 ypc). With that kind of production, second- and third-down conversions are made all the easier.
"They're really dynamic, with McCaffrey at running back," says safety Stefan McClure. "He can really do a lot of good things for them, as far as speed, getting him in space ... He's very explosive. He's got a good change-of-direction, and he can catch the ball well. He played slot receiver for them last year, so he does a good job of, just from watching film on him, he's gotten a lot more patient, letting his pulling guard, and letting his linemen pull and set up blocks in front of him, and at the moment where he needs to turn it on, he turns it on, hits another gear, and he's not going to run out of bounds. He's going to run towards contact, he's going to finish off runs strong, trying to run downhill. He's been impressive for being only a sophomore, really his first year playing true, true, only running back."
Though he never coached against Toby Gerhart, Tate evokes him when describing McCaffrey.
http://www.scout.com/college/football/recruiting/story/1612709-athletic-... "That's what he is," Tate says. "He is. They move him around. They give him the ball the best way they can, and very chance they get, but the thing we have to do is just fit the way we need to fit properly, keep everything inside and keep it in front, I think we'll be OK. We've just got to play solid, fundamental, physical football."
That's exactly the brand that Stanford plays. They lead the conference in tackles for loss allowed (4.80), and the Cardinal have the third-best rushing offense in the league, averaging 225.1 yards per game on the ground.
In years past, having played Oregon State the week before facing Stanford would have been a nice primer -- both powerful, run-first, pro-style offenses -- but since Mike Riley left Corvallis, the new zone-read stylings of the Beavers are quite a bit different than what Cal will see this weekend. There's an even greater difference between what the Cardinal do in the run game and what Oregon did, piling up 477 rushing yards against the Bears in Eugene two games ago.
"I think we made not very many mistakes versus Oregon State," Tate says. "I'm not taking anything away from their players. I think their players played hard; we played better. I don't think we played very well up front, rushing the passer or anything versus Oregon. We miss-fit some stuff. We came back, worked on fundamentals, got back to fundamental football, and played pretty good against Oregon State."
That said, Cal still allowed 204 yards rushing to the Beavers, a team that came in averaging 172.4 yards per game on the ground, so, how do the Bears pivot? Tate was in full effect on Tuesday, barking at defensive end DeVante Wilson that he couldn't do the same things he did against Oregon State, because Stanford will "run power every play," and, doing what he was doing, technique-wise, he'd "get his back broke."
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1612475-contract-extension... "The thing about Stanford is, they're going to run the football," Tate says. "There ain't no secret about it. They're going to line up, and they're going to play physical. The thing we can't be doing is coming off in a spread type mentality -- rushing the quarterback, rushing the quarterback -- no, we need to fit blocks, and anchor the offensive line of scrimmage. We don't have to control the offensive line of scrimmage; we have to anchor it. If we can do that, we give ourselves a chance."
"They bring a unique challenge, playing with the power game that they like -- the six O-linemen and the double tight ends, the fullbacks and everything -- so it's a little different to prepare for, but they bring the challenge of a strung run game," McClure says. "Everybody has to be assignment sound in their gaps, their run fits, and also, you've got to be aware of play-action, so everybody's got to read their keys. If you're supposed to read the tight end, read the tight end, and everybody just has to play assignment-sound football, and, also, Hogan can run, so you've really got to be gap-sound. If you're supposed to be back-side, if you're supposed to squeeze the edge, squeeze the hip of the guard or the right end, you've got to make sure you do it, or they'll exploit it, and they've got the athletes, and they've got more speed this year. They'll take it the distance."
Yes, the game manager extraordinaire, Kevin Hogan, can run, and he's run better than the Bears. Over the past three games, Hogan's averaged 5.9 yards per carry. This season, Cal is averaging 4.53 yards per carry. In the 30-28 thriller against Washington State, Hogan rushed 14 times for 112 yards.
"He's a big, strong, really effective runner," Dykes says. "They don't run him unless they have to. When you look at the season, they had a long span where they didn't need to run him, and they got into some critical situations against Washington State, and they just kind of put the ball in his hands and let him win the ballgame for them, running the football. He's capable of doing that. He's a big, strong guy who can run people over and is probably more effective as a runner than people realize.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1612315-sixth-win-down-bea... "He did the same thing against Oregon. When they need two or three yards in some critical situations, more than likely, he's going to be carrying the ball. We've got to do a good job tackling him. He's a physical guy, and when he carries it, we've got to hit him and get him on the ground."
Beyond that, Dykes says, Hogan and McCaffrey have "a great relationship, an understanding of each other."
When those two get together, look out.
"[McCaffrey] can beat you a lot of different ways," Dykes says. "They'll split him out some, play him at receiver, screens, obviously carry the ball in the backfield, just get him the ball a lot of different ways. He's one of those guys that, I think he's got great football instincts, when you look at him. He runs to the right place all the time. He's just one of those guys that naturally seems to pick things up quickly. Obviously, runs physical. Finishes runs well, gets his pads down well. He's strong, and also he's one of those guys that can make you miss, as well. Real good football player, and a unique talent."