Stanford will face one of the worst football teams in Cal program history on Saturday. When it comes to all critical phases of the game, Sonny Dykes' squad sits in the Pac-12 cellar. Poor defensive averages (44.4 points, 522.9 yards per game) tell a big part of the story.
Some of Cal's ineptitude is staggering. See the discrepancy between their punt coverage numbers and their own punt returns. The Bears have returned 19 kicks for a total of 57 yards this season (3.0 yards per return), while their opponents have taken 22 back for 444 yards (20.2 yards per return). Cal is also one of only three teams in the entire nation with zero interception return yards (Army and UTEP are the other two).
The Bears, of course, were not very good to begin with this season. But injuries have also completely decimated their squad. Offensive players have been forced to make sudden switches to the defensive side of the ball. Strength and depth is lacking on both lines of scrimmage. That, of course, is the recipe for disaster against a team like Stanford, a club that may pack the most brute strength in the country.
In this game, an average Stanford effort will be more than enough to win. A disastrous (or miraculous, depending on your point of view) rash of turnovers is the only thing that can infuse the Bears with unprecedented life. That brings us to our second and final key.
Cal's strength disadvantage in this game leads me to believe that an upset here is more unlikely than Stanford's over USC in 2007. No team had ever overcome a 41-point spread until the Cardinal did on that night six years ago in the Coliseum. It's helpful to analyze the formula for the Farm Boys' famous victory over USC to discuss the potential way that Cal can pull off a shocking upset over Stanford on Saturday.
USC quarterback John David Booty threw five interceptions back on that night. He broke his finger in the second quarter, but Pete Carroll had him continue to stubbornly throw downfield in the second half. That enabled deluge of turnovers that opened the door for Stanford to squeak by in a 24-23 final.
The Cardinal can learn a simple lesson from that game: Hold onto the ball. Stanford's physical advantage at the line of scrimmage and in space is so significant here that only a string of egregious errors can negate it.
- Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov is averaging 8.1 tackles per game, making him more productive now than he was before his severe 2011 knee injury (he previously averaged 6.9 tackles per game in 2012). "I would say he's smarter," Shaw said. "When he came back, he was a step slower. He's faster this year. What happens when you're a step slower is you can't get to all the places you were before. So you have to play it smarter. You have to play with better angles... He's a much, much smarter football player now. He plays the techniques and he plays the defense much better than he has in years past."
- Even when Skov and fellow star Trent Murphy leave after this season, Shaw believes Stanford has the arsenal "to be one of the top linebacker groups for years to come." Outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson praised sophomore Noor Davis for progress that he has made this year, while true freshmen Mike Tyler, Kevin Palma, and Peter Kalambayi all have shown potential to enter the rotation next season. Anderson is especially excited about Tyler's pass rushing abilities. He also spoke highly of Joe Hemschoot's performance at the outside linebacker/big nickel back spot, a position move from the inside which Stanford is seriously considering making permanent. The Cardinal are also considering keeping Blake Lueders at defensive end following his move from outside linebacker earlier this year.
- The National Strength and Conditioning Association named Stanford's Shannon Turley the National Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. Cardinal players cheered enthusiastically upon hearing the news at the end of practice. They even demanded a speech, but it ended up being very "short, sweet, and to the point" -- true to expected Turley form. "How physical we can play is a direct result of what he does," Shaw said. "The players know that."
- Outside linebacker Trent Murphy spoke at length about his senior season and his life outside of football. Full audio of the chat is embedded on this page, but one of the most entertaining parts shines some light on the "country strong" nature of the Stanford defense. "If football goes well, I'd enjoy just having a simple life on the farm," Murphy said. "Waking up at the crack of down and working the simple, right way. I think that would be the right thing to do... There's not a whole lot of politics on a farm, so I think it would be a cool experience. Really blue collar, wake up and just earn your way of living."
- Yesterday, I documented Stanford's concerning problems in the red zone. Here's another brewing issue: The Cardinal has scored points on only three of its 10 opening drives this year. Against USC, Stanford burned a pair of timeouts right out of the gate before Ty Montgomery dropped Kevin Hogan's third down bomb.
- Stanford cornerback Alex Carter will miss the 116th Big Game because of a concussion he suffered at USC. He is expected back the following week against Notre Dame. Kicker Jordan Williamson is participating in practice, but he is still questionable for Saturday, though Shaw expects to certainly be back for the regular season finale.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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