Only one team has a worse record in the Pac-12 North than Cal – Oregon State. If that doesn’t give you any indication of the quality of Cal’s football team, I really don’t know what will.
Nonetheless, the game promises some interesting positional matchups between two teams that are fairly star-studded, but not particularly well-rounded. Stanford’s strong suit is its offense, featuring big future-NFL names like Bryce Love, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Kaden Smith. On the other hand, Berkeley’s defense is the only thing that has kept the Golden Bears in games this season, led by star junior interior defensive lineman Luc Bequette and a highly productive middle linebacker tandem of junior Evan Weaver and senior standout Jordan Kunaszyk.
Offense vs. Defense. A tale as old as time.
Here are some key positional matchups to watch out for between the Cardinal’s offense and Cal’s defense in this weekend’s Big Game.
1) Over the middle: Colby Parkinson and Kaden Smith vs. Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk
It’s a tag team matchup in no man’s land that interests me the most this weekend. Stanford’s high octane offense this season has been led by strong play by quarterback KJ Costello and his deep receiving corps. The team’s tight end duo of junior Kaden Smith and sophomore Colby Parkinson has been nearly unstoppable this season. Last week, Parkinson accounted for most of the tandem’s catches, racking up a ridiculous 166 yards and four touchdowns. Before Parkinson’s breakout last week, Smith had been leading all tight ends in the nation in receiving yards for the majority of the season.
Parkinson put Pac-12 defensive coordinators on high alert last Saturday and reminded us that Kaden Smith is not the Cardinal’s only star at tight end. However, remember that Parkinson’s performance last week was against Oregon State, a team whose defense would make my little brother’s Pop Warner team look like a Super Bowl contender. This weekend, however, Smith and Parkinson face one of the best linebacker duos in the country in senior Jordan Kunaszyk and junior Evan Weaver, who currently rank first and third respectively in the Pac-12 in solo tackles. They both stand at 6’3” and weigh in around 235 pounds, and have been a model of efficiency against the run and the pass this season.
A few weeks ago, the duo held Washington’s 6’5” senior tight end Drew Sample to one catch for six yards. This weekend, the linebacker tandem will be prowling the middle of the field this Saturday, likely manning up against Stanford’s tight ends. If Stanford’s tight end duo can emulate any semblance of the productivity they’ve had all season and continue to use their size to their advantage, Kunaszyk and Weaver won’t stand a chance.
2) In the trenches: Nate Herbig vs. Luc Bequette
Last season, guard Nate Herbig was a monster on the interior of the Cardinal offensive line, paving the way for long runs by Bryce Love nearly every Saturday. This season, he’s been inconsistent to say the least – manhandled by Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery back in September and off the field for the last two weeks with an undisclosed injury.
This weekend, the Cardinal offense will need Herbig back in full form more than ever as they face an interior defensive line that has been playing phenomenally well over the past few weeks. Cal junior defensive lineman Luc Bequette had a monster game last week against USC, racking up eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Bequette was graded as the top defensive lineman in the Pac-12 last week by Pro Football Focus, and is looking to repeat with a strong performance this week against a Cardinal interior offensive line that has been suffering this season. If the Herbig-led line can’t keep Bequette and the Cal front from getting into the backfield Saturday, the Cardinal offense is going to have a tough time moving the ball.
3) In the Air: K.J. Costello vs. Berkeley’s defensive backfield
Last week, KJ Costello looked dominant, grading out at a Pac-12-leading 90.0 on Pro Football Focus’ Week 11 grading report. Costello also leads all Power-5 quarterbacks in passing yards under pressure this season, and is looking to continue his productive year this Saturday against one of the tougher pass defenses the Cardinal has faced this season. Cal ranks 20th in the FBS in pass defense, allowing the fewest passing yards per game of any Pac-12 team.
Costello also leads all Pac-12 quarterbacks in yards per attempt, a category in which Cal’s sophomore starting quarterback, Brandon McIlwain ranks last in the conference. With senior wideouts Trenton Irwin and JJ Arcega-Whiteside stretching the field, Costello will certainly have plenty of opportunities to air it out.
At the end of the day, Stanford’s offense will be called upon to outpace an extraordinarily weak Cal offense that ranks 111th in the FBS this season. As long as Costello and Stanford’s offensive weapons can continue to move the chains against Cal’s stout defense, the Big Game shouldn’t be a worry for the Cardinal this weekend.
Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu