Gameday Preview: Stanford at Cal

Bo Jackson knows football, but even Bo doesn't know much about Stanford or Cal heading into the 2008 Big Game. Home vs. away, pre-November vs. since, Cal's so-so pass attack vs. Stanford's so-so pass D: there are just too many questions surrounding both teams to know what will happen Saturday. But maybe a chaotic game like this is the absolute ideal for the underdog Card. Why? Read on...

Gameday Breakdown:
Stanford (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10) at California (8-1, 6-1 Pac-10)
Sat. Nov. 22, 12:30 p.m. PT

Last year:   Stanford 20, Cal 13. The Class of 2008 went out in style. The final game in the new Stanford Stadium's first season was a gem, with Stanford taking an early 7-0 lead on a Mark Bradford touchdown reception, and never trailing the entire contest. The Card finished with just 316 yards to Cal's 360, but forced three turnovers, including two Nick Sanchez interceptions of Nate Longshore to seal the victory on the back of its D.

Stanford this year: The Card are 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-10, with wins over Oregon State (38-26),  San Jose State (23-10), Washington (35-28), Arizona (24-23) and Washington State (58-0). Stanford's losses had all come on the road, at Arizona State (41-17), TCU (31-14), Notre Dame  (28-21), UCLA (23-20) and Oregon (35-28), until last week. USC was tied with the Card at halftime, 17-17, but went on a 28-0 run to win 45-23 in Stanford's home finale. The Card must upset the Bears to win its sixth game of the season and become bowl eligible.

Where would they go?
Disclaimers: If Stanford does reach six wins, they'd finish 5-4 in the conference, a better mark than most other six-win teams, which should give them priority. Stanford's head-to-head wins and losses would also matter in case of a tie. Finally, bowls flip-flop teams all the time to create matchups that fill stadiums.

Nonetheless, if Stanford gets to six, the Pac-10 final standings look exactly like this week's, and the bowls all played by the rules, here's our best guess of how it would look.

1. Rose (vs. Big 10 #1 or BCS at-large, Jan. 1, 2 p.m., Pasadena, ABC): USC vs. Penn State  2. Holiday (vs. Big 12 #3, Dec. 30, 5 p.m., San Diego, ESPN): Oregon State vs. Missouri
3. Sun (vs. Big 12 #4/Big East #2/Notre Dame, Dec. 31, 11 a.m., El Paso, Tex.): Oregon vs. Pittsburgh
4/5. Las Vegas (vs. MWC #1, Dec. 20, 5 p.m., ESPN): Arizona vs. TCU (Utah to BCS)
4/5. Emerald (vs. ACC #5/#6/#7, San Francisco, Dec. 27, 5 p.m., ESPN): Cal vs. Boston College/North Carolina
6. Hawaii (vs. WAC #2/Hawaii, Dec. 24, 5 p.m., ESPN): Stanford vs. Hawaii
7. Poinsettia (vs. MWC #2, San Diego, Dec. 23, 5 p.m., ESPN): BYU vs. at-large (no remaining Pac-10 teams)

Hawaii is 5-5, with Idaho (likely win), Washington State (likely win) and Cincinnati (likely loss) remaining. The Warriors need at least two of the three to finish with a bowl-eligible winning record. If they do, it's likely they'll be selected for the Hawaii Bowl. Stanford, meanwhile, is increasingly likely to finish sixth in the Pac-10 if it does steal one of its next two, and so a trip to face the Warriors seems the most likely outcome.

Cal this year: It's been the second-straight letdown of a season for Jeff Tedford, who is no longer mentioned as one of the best college football coaches in the nation, and the Bears. Cal's losses, like Stanford's (save for USC) have all come on the road: at Maryland (35-27), at Arizona (42-27), and, in the last two weeks, at USC (17-3) and at Oregon State (34-21). The Bears have beat Michigan State (38-31), Colorado State (42-7), Arizona State (24-14), UCLA (41-20) and, three weeks ago, Oregon (26-16) in Berkeley, with Washington still to come in two weeks.

Key stats:

In Cal's corner:

- The Bears win their average game 32-22, better than Stanford's 27.2-26.6 mark.
- Cal outgains their average opponent 361 yards to 315, better than Stanford's 344-379 mark.

In Stanford's corner:

- Cal has been in only game decided by seven or less this season, its 38-31 season-opening win over Michigan State. Stanford, meanwhile, is 2-3 in close games, beating Washington and Arizona while losing to Notre Dame, UCLA and Oregon.

These last three game stats are misleading, because while both teams have played USC and Oregon, Stanford's played Washington State while Cal's played Oregon State in its last three. Still, the Card enjoy such an advantage in recent games, especially offensively, that it bears mentioning:

- Stanford is winning its last three games 36-27 on average. Cal is losing 17-22, the first of several stats that suggest their offense has gone M.I.A. since the leaves started to turn colors.

- Stanford is outgaining its average opponent 383-365 over their last three contests. Over that same time span, Cal is allowing 347 yards, slightly more than its season average, but is gaining just 248 yards, more than 100 yards worse than their season average.

- Stanford has committed just two turnovers and 16 penalties in its last three games to Cal's eight turnovers and 22 penalties.

- Stanford has possessed the ball for 57.4% of its last three games, easily better than Cal's 50.5%.

Even:

- Cal has only the slightest of advantages in penalties (6.8 per game to Stanford's 6.9), turnovers (1.7 per game to Stanford's 1.9) and time of possession (49.9% to Stanford's 49.3%) over the entire season.

Overall:

Cal's the favorite, but by how much is a trickier question than normal. Looking at the season-long stats, I'd install Cal as a eight or nine-point favorite, which translates into a 11 or 12-point line with the Bears at home.

If you put more emphasis on recent performances, however, Cal's offense has struggled while Stanford's has surged, so maybe Cal is only a seven-point favorite.

Then again, how much weight do you give homefield advantage? Stanford obviously won't have to travel that far, but they will be in front of a hostile crowd. With Cal 4-0 at home and 2-4 on the road, and Stanford 4-1 at home and 1-5 on the road, maybe Cal should be a 15-point favorite?

I guess Cal's extraordinary home-field edge (and Stanford's extraordinary road woes) roughly cancels with Stanford and Cal's respective offensive performances in recent games. If so, then I guess Cal is a 11-point favorite or so, which translates into about 80 percent win odds for the Bears.


When Stanford has the ball:

On the ground:
Stat snapshot:
Stanford rushes for 206.5 yards per game, including 171 per road game and an average of 244 yards in their last three. Cal allows 124.4 rush yards per game, and just 100 per home contest, but 191 yards over their last three.

Stanford's offense and Stanford's rush offense have largely been one and the same for much of this season. The primary reason Stanford has any shot at a bowl bid this year is its rush attack, and the backs and line must come through with one of their best performances of the season if Stanford is to eke out the victory. Tailback Toby Gerhart and center Alex Fletcher are the stars of the unit, with Gerhart's 1,033 yards (on 5.4 yards per carry) within striking distance of the school's single-season record.

Number to watch: 4.0 yards per carry. Stanford averages about five yards per touch, while Cal allows about three, so something has to give. It's hard to see Stanford winning if they're not ripping off at least four yards per touch, because they simply won't have 50 touches to gain their 160 rush yards. Cal has allowed 2.5 yards per September rush, 2.8 yards per October rush and 4.5 yards per November rush. Which Bear team will show up Saturday?

We project 180 Stanford rushing yards, but overall efficiency and short-yardage downs are absolutely key.

In the air:
Stat snapshot: Stanford passes for 137.6 per game, but at least they're consistent, with that number similar on the road and in their last three games. Cal allows 191 pass yards per game, including 206 yards per home game, but just 156 yards over their last three.

Even more so than with Stanford's rush attack, I think Stanford's passing yardage total is less important than the manner in which it's attained. Stanford's committed only two turnovers in their past three games. Can Tavita Pritchard keep that streak going Saturday?

Statistically, Pritchard's improving, with only two of his five games in which he posted a QB rating of under 100 coming since San Jose State on Sept. 20. His worst performance this season was at UCLA, but Pritchard's improved since then too, with just one interception in his last three games.

Number to watch: 60 percent accuracy. Will fans see the historically bad Stanford pass attack of September, or the simply mediocre attack since? Stanford's completed at least 60 percent of its passes in none of its first four games, but in four of its seven since.

We project 150 Cardinal passing yards. You have to figure Stanford has a trick pass play or two up its sleeve, and this would not be a bad time at all to try to break a big one through the air with a gimmick. Stanford's conventional pass attack isn't designed to generate big plays (and often forces interceptions when it tries to go deep), and the Card could certainly use a big play or two to keep pace with a more explosive Cal team.


When Cal has the ball:

In the air:
Stat snapshot:
Cal passes for 211 yards per game, but just 167 in their last three, and 195 at home. Stanford allows 238 yards per game, including 250 on the road, but just 144 yards in their last three.

The exercise in futility that is Cal's pass attack has been well-documented, and one Stanford fans understand intrinsically. Kevin Riley was last seen failing to spike the ball against Oregon State. (How about Oregon State busting the bubbles of undefeated and top-two USC, Cal and USC in each of the last three years respectively. They deserve the Rose Bowl for that run alone.) He was 11-of-25 with an interception, a touchdown, five sacks and just 117 yards in last week's loss in Corvallis.

"If you have four receivers you have none," seems to apply to Cal's group of wideouts, where Nyan Boateng, Cameron Morrah, Verran Tucker and LaReylle Cunningham have each had plenty of opportunity to prove themselves the next DeSean Jackson, yet none have more than 403 receiving yards (Boateng). Given the lack of a true star, look for Cal and Riley to attempt to exploit whichever Stanford cornerbacks and safeties they feel most confident against. (The exercise in guessing who that might be is left to the reader.)

Of course, as long-suffering Stanford fans know, the Cardinal defense is great at helping struggling quarterbacks find their inner Bart Starr. (Washington State can't pass and both Oregon and USC were having so much fun carving the Card up on the ground that they saw no reason to pass, so Stanford's pass D doesn't earn an A so much as an incomplete for their past few games.)

This is the key matchup of the game. In the three other phases of the game, we know Stanford and Cal are each going to run for their 150 or 200 yards and we know Stanford's not passing for more than 200 yards. Here, the variance is far greater -- Cal could pass for 60 yards or 360 yards, and I wouldn't be shocked either way.

If Cal passes like they're facing Oregon State again, book those Hawaii tickets. If Stanford defends the pass like they're facing Oregon State again, book that reservation at Oasis to drown your sorrows. And, as I suspect, if both teams have their moments where it looks like Oregon State all over again, flip a coin.

But the question of whether Stanford will make a bowl can be rephrased thusly: How well will Stanford's pass D perform? That's how important this matchup is.

Number to watch: 50 percent accuracy. Cal's throws aren't as rinky-dinky or high-percentage as Stanford's, so the accuracy necessary for them to be successful is lower. The Bears are 1-3 when they miss more passes than they complete, and 5-1 in other contests. Stanford has held its last three opponents to 56, 56 and 52 percent accuracy. If it can do at least as well Saturday, it has a good shot.

Cal's also been sacked 26 times this season. Stanford's DL is senior-laden and must want this game so much it's hard for them to put into words. They can take matters into their own hands by creating stifling pressure Saturday.

We project 210 Cal passing yards, but keep in mind the margin of error here is huge -- and will likely decide the contest.

On the ground:
Stat snapshot: 
Cal rushes for 150 yards per game, including 170 at home, but just 81 yards over their last three contests. (One theory: as the pass offense has stalled, opponents have increasingly clogged the box.) Stanford's rush D, meanwhile, is the inverse of their pass offense. Pritchard and the offense have quietly improved over the back half of the season, while the rush D is allowing only 140.7 yards per game, but that includes 221 yards over their last three games, and 163 rush yards allowed per road game. That's a big dropoff that hasn't gotten a lot of ink.

For Cal, it's a true one-two attack, with sophomore Jahvid Best (882 rush yards, seven touchdowns) and freshman Shane Vereen (574 rush yards, three touchdowns) earning the lion's share of Cal's 1486 rush yards this season. Best's 6.5 yards per carry bests (always wanted to write that) Vereeen's 5.1, and Best's 211 receiving yards are also fifth-best on the team.

Number to watch: 120 rush yards. It's an ambitious goal, because Cal is a rush-first team and Stanford's rush D has been sliding, but Stanford is the underdog: they're going to have to outperform expectations somewhere if they want to pull the upset. Cal would just as soon never pass Saturday, so if Stanford can keep them under 120 rush yards, the Bears are going to have to pass a lot, which in turn gives Stanford its best shot at an upset.

We project 150 Cal rushing yards. Best averages 98 yards per game and Vereen 57 yards per contest, so the Card have their work cut out for them.


Vegas Prediction:

Cal by 9.

My Prediction:

Cal 27, Stanford 24

Cal's the favorite, and deservedly so, but this game isn't as clear-cut as it appears at first glance. Stanford features an improving pass offense and slumping rush D, Cal's entire offense is in a severe slump, and both teams have unusually large discrepancies between their performances at home and on the road, and in September and October versus November.

Add in the intangible factors of the rivalry's intense passion, that Stanford did spring the upset last year, that the Cardinal appears to be trending upward while Cal's treading water at best and that the Card have the opportunity to make a bowl for the first time in seven years, and that's a whole bunch of unknowns.

If you're the underdog, the more uncertainty the merrier. One had to really mentally contort to see Stanford beating Oregon or USC, and we didn't pick Stanford to come especially close in either of those contests. Here, though, the recipe for a Stanford upset is relatively simple: Cal passes as poorly as they did in their last game, and everything else just plays to the status quo.

We haven't picked a touchdown-plus underdog to win outright this season, and we're not about to now. It'd be dishonest intellectually -- Cal is a better football team and should win this football game -- and it'd be dishonest as a fan, as I've always tried to be fair in both praising and criticizing the Card, so who am I to just ignore all Stanford's weaknesses and jump on the bandwagon now. But we honestly see a close game that comes down to the wire. (Both teams are good on field goals, with Stanford 13-of-15, and Cal 11-of-15.) And just like anything could happen when Cal's throwing the ball, anything could happen in those final few franctic minutes, and by extension in this contest.

At this point, further analysis is pure folly, and there's only one thing left to say...

Go Stanford! Beat Cal.

This season:

Predicted: Notre Dame 30, Stanford 20. Actual: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21.
Predicted: Stanford 28, Washington 27. Actual: Stanford 35, Washington 28.
Predicted: Stanford 34, San Jose State 24. Actual: Stanford 23, San Jose State 10.
Predicted: TCU 23, Stanford 10. Actual: TCU 31, Stanford 14.
Predicted: Arizona 34, Stanford 20. Actual: Stanford 24, Arizona 23.
Predicted: Stanford 28, UCLA 24. Actual: UCLA 23, Stanford 20.
Predicted: Stanford 34, Washington State 13. Actual: Stanford 58, WSU 0.
Predicted:  Oregon 27, Stanford 17. Actual: Oregon 35, Stanford 28.
Predicted:  USC 38, Stanford 10. Actual: USC 45, Stanford 23
Predicted: Cal 27, Stanford 24.


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