In the 117th iteration of the Big Game on Saturday at 1 PM, Cal and Stanford face off with identical 5-5 records. Stanford has lacked offensive creativity and spark in stumbling to this record, while the Bears have put together excellent offense, but have struggled defending against the pass. And that is what this game comes down to, a Stanford passing game that is eminently stoppable against a Cal pass defense that has been carved up often this season. The flipside to this is also an interesting proposition. In spite of their aforementioned offense, the Stanford defense has carried its sterling reputation through the season, ranking seventh in points allowed, and holding every team not named Oregon under 27 points. Cal's offense, when on, has put up ridiculous numbers through the air and on the ground. The Bear Raid is starting to have its full potential reached, but there have been struggles to get it started in the early quarters. In order to take back the Axe, Cal is going to have to shake things up a little.
This is a big fear for many a Cal fan. While Kevin Hogan has struggled this season, he still threw for five touchdown passes last year against Cal. The biggest weakness in the passing game for Cal are quick passes, with swing routes and quick screens being the main points of damage. The biggest conspirators for Stanford in this aspect of the game will be Ty Montgomery (who had 5 touchdowns in last year's Big Game) and true freshman Christian McCaffrey. Montgomery presents a Nelson Agholor-like problem with his speed, and McCaffrey is a faster version of Ryan Hewitt, another player the Bears were not able to stymie in the flats. But there is a solution, one that defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has rarely broken out this year. This would be the time to break out the Tampa Two.
For those uninitiated in the verbiage, the Tampa 2 is a version of cover 2 coverage. It's a zone defense against the pass, with two deep safeties and the middle linebacker dropping deep in order to cover the middle. The cornerbacks try to jam receivers at the line before getting into zones in the flats. When Cal used a Tampa 2 look against USC last Thursday, it resulted in a Hardy Nickerson interception. Nickerson drops back about 13 yards from the line of scrimmage in a deep zone, which allows him to undercut a post pattern meant for Agholor. Using the Tampa 2 would be a way combat three weaknesses that the Bear defense has.
First off, the cover 2 has the cornerbacks sit in shallow zones, covering for the weakness that Cal defensive backs have in shedding blocks from wide receivers. Corners in this situation can oass of the receiver responsibility to the deep safety. Since Stanford is one of the only teams in the Pac-12 that runs a pro-style offense (Utah being the other) with a fullback and a tight end, there will most likely not be a receiver in the slot for the safety to worry about. So the corners can pin their ears back in order to cover. Secondly, the zones that the outside linebackers drop to, a shallower hook to curl zone (Where an inside receiver would run a hook or a curl to as opposed to an outside receiver in cover three), allow for the linebackers to come up and help make tackles on swing passes in the open field. Thirdly, the deeper zone allows for covering the tight end on seam routes easier, something that would alleviate the minds of many an old Blue. I would dare Kevin Hogan to make the throws needed to break the zone, most of which are either short underneath routes, or attacking the gap between the corner and the safety on either side. Hogan's accuracy has been suspect at times, so hopefully this defense will be seen interspersed on Sunday.
Stanford's defense has had solid games against everyone except Oregon, who laid the smackdown against the Cardinal. Cal is not Oregon, and can't do many of the things that Oregon does. The Bears have had trouble against pressure up the middle, especially last week against Leonard Williams and the USC defense. Stanford has a defensive scheme capable of doing the same thing. Their defensive lineman execute extremely well on stunts, especially the twist between their defensive tackles and ends. Even when they aren't stunting, a straight up rush has gotten to the quarterback, as it did on many occasions against Utah. Dealing with this at the point of attack requires a couple of things for the Bear Raid.
The first point is obvious but isn't always used. Moving the pocket through rollouts is imperative, as long as the Cal offensive line can protect Jared Goff's blindside. Getting some quick gains with 5 yard outs or drags will be helpful in building confidence for an offense that started slow against USC and had little success last year against the Cardinal. The second point is one that rings far and wide for use against teams with aggressive defenses, and that is to utilize screens and draws. Daniel Lasco has been pretty successful running draws this year, and even if the screens get a couple of yards per use, they can help set the defense up for something that worked mightily against them last week.
This is a play from the Tedford era that is definitely in Tony Franklin's playbook, run here by Shane Vereen against UC Davis in 2010.
This a basic fake off a tunnel screen, where the inside receiver, or in this case the running back, would come up to block the cornerback. The man who fakes the block hesitates for a moment, the runs the wheel route, which Utah used
to success against the Stanford defense, who played man against the two touchdown passes thrown against them in overtime. Setting this play up with tunnel screens is an option to be considered for the Cal offense.
This Big Game looks to be the closest had since a 2011 thriller, where either team could be seen to pull out a victory. Cal has all the piece that are needed to take down a struggling Stanford team. Doing these things will require execution that the motivation of a rivalry game can provide. Only after the game on Saturday evening will we truly know.