November 19, 2010

Containing the Cardinal

BERKELEY-Holding the nation's No. 1 offense to just 15 points is a nice notch to have on one's buckle, but when the No. 14-ranked crew comes to town the very next week, sitting on that particular laurel isn't exactly an option.

"I always move on to the next games," said the Cal football team's defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "We haven't talked any about Oregon, other than after we looked at the tape on Monday and made the corrections from there and moved on. Our whole focus has been on this game, not on what happened last week.

This Saturday, the Bears will turn their sites on the second-best scoring offense in the conference in the 113th Big Game against Stanford. The Cardinal have scored 51 TDs and 14 field goals, averaging 39.8 points per game.

"I think our guys are excited about playing Stanford. They're excited about the challenges that Stanford presents, because it's a whole different set of problems than what we had last week," Pendergast said. "The biggest thing we focus on this week is I've challenged them to step up and play with that same energy level that they played with last Saturday."

One of Cal's biggest challenges will be in defending a Cardinal passing attack centered around one of the best signal-callers in the country: sophomore Andrew Luck.

Stanford boasts the best passing efficiency rating (158.2) in the conference, with just seven picks to 22 TDs. Luck has thrown all 22 of those scoring strikes, has completed 69.6% of his passes for 2,511 yards and his 159.7 passer rating is tops in the Pac-10.

"They're just going to have to trust their keys, trust their eyes, and what I mean when I say that is align correctly initially, and play the techniques within the coverage that the receivers present," Pendergast said of his secondary. "That's the biggest thing."

Luck is also dangerous when he pulls the ball down and takes off, ranking first in the conference in yards of total offense with 2,884 thanks to 373 yards on the ground-second only to Oregon's Darron Thomas among Pac-10 QBs. Last week, the Bears held Thomas to just 34 yards on the ground.

"That's a concern," Pendergast said. "They have some designed runs for him with a zone-read scheme and also, if you're not careful in drop-back passing situations, because he's very good at stepping up into the pocket, looking and throwing, and if there isn't anything downfield, he'll take off running. Containing him, and for the defensive line to take their blinders off and really, as they're rushing the passer, keeping their eyes on him will be important for us from a pass-rush standpoint on Saturday."

The offensive line protecting Luck has remained intact throughout the season, with the same five players-Jonathan Martin, Derek Hall, Andrew Phillips, David DeCastro and Chase Beeler- having started every game this season together at the same positions. The quintet has allowed just four sacks all season-tied for the best in the nation with Army.

"He does a lot of really good things," Pendergast said of Luck. "He's very smart, he runs their system very well, he gets them in and out of the right plays, he gets the personnel groups changed, he knows every situation that comes up throughout the course of the game and he's got a big-time skill set. His mental abilities along with his athletic abilities and the way he sees the field, I think he's a very special player."

With all that said, though, the Cardinal will face a fast, aggressive and strong Cal defensive front which has put opposing quarterbacks on their backs 30 times this season-sixth in the nation.

"They present a different set of problems. In college football, you're trying to defend a different style of offense every week, so this week's going to be a big challenge for us," Pendergast said. "We've defended a spread offense for the last couple weeks and now we're going back to a pro-style offense, which is very similar to what we see from our offense throughout the course of spring ball and fall practice, so there's a lot of carry-over from that standpoint."

Like the Bears, Stanford also possesses a potent running game, second-best in the Pac-10 with 213.5 yards per game and 27 total touchdowns on the ground.

The straw that stirs the drink at the point of attack is senior linebacker/fullback Owen Marecic, a 6-foot-1, 244-pound jackhammer who plows the way for the Cardinal tailbacks with a vicious physicality that's earned him three straight Pac-10 honorable mentions at fullback.

"He's an excellent blocker, he runs good routes and he catches the ball out of the backfield," Pendergast said. "We have to trust our eyes and trust our keys, knowing where he's at, at all times."

The main beneficiary of Marecic's work on offense has been starting tailback Stepfan Taylor, who ranks fifth in the Pac-10 with 849 rushing yards on 181 carries, finding paydirt 11 times. Taylor has taken over ably for now- Minnesota Viking Toby Gerhart, who was one of last year's leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy. In last year's Big Game at Stanford Stadium, a Bob Gregory-led defense effectively contained Gerhart, holding him below his season-average in a narrow 34-28 win.

"They're very similar, offensively, to what they did last year, and obviously their quarterback played in that game," Pendergast said. "We're different up front technique-wise, we're different up front schematically, we run different coverages and we've got a complete different package."

In that game, Luck went a very-human 10-for-30, passing for just 157 yards and rushing for just 31. Clearly, this year, the young gunslinger has come into his own despite the lack of a stable corps of receivers. In fact, Taylor is Luck's fourth-most prolific receiving target this year, racking up 245 yards and one TD on 24 catches-fourth on the team.

By the Numbers
Stanford and Cal are neck and neck at third and fourth in the conference for scoring defense, with the Cardinal holding opponents to an even 20 points per game and the Bears coming in with 20.7 allowed. Stanford also has the conference's third-best red zone offense, scoring 88.3% of the time-just behind Cal's 88.6%.

The Cardinal are tied with USC for second-place in the conference with 249 total first downs, and are by far the class of the Pac-10 when it comes to converting on third down, dialing the down marker back 58.1% of the time. But, the Cardinal will have a rough go of it when it comes to getting a fresh set of downs, as the Bears are third in the Pac-10 with a 34.2% opponent conversion rate.

The real test will come when head coach Jim Harbaugh decides to roll the dice and go for it on fourth down, which he has done 12 times this year, succeeding nine times (75%). When an opposing offense goes for it on fourth, Cal is last in the conference at stopping those attempts, allowing a fresh set 64.7% of the time.



 

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