Stanford football plays the Wildcats this Saturday in an attempt to return to victory in the conference against a much weaker Arizona squad. With the offense looking to come back to life against an open Wildcats run defense, desk editors Matthew Bernstein and Lorenzo Rosas, along with senior staff writer Do-Hyoung Park, sit down to discuss the importance of this game to the Cardinal’s bowl run and whether the offense will gel under newly-named starting quarterback Keller Chryst.
Stanford (4-3, 2-3 Pac-12) travels to Tucson this weekend to face off against a struggling Arizona team (2-5, 0-4) that is winless in conference play this season. After dismal outings in three of the past four weekends for the Cardinal, is this game a must-win in order to remain in bowl contention, keeping in mind tough road games against Oregon and Cal still looming?
Matthew Bernstein (MB): This Saturday is shaping up to be a must-win game against Arizona. Our remaining schedule is tough, and the fact that we must finish at least two or three over the final five games of the season in order to become bowl eligible means margin for error is slim. The remaining schedule includes contests at home against Oregon State, at Oregon, at University of California, Berkeley and a season finale at home against Rice, meaning four out of five games come against conference foes. While Oregon State has struggled this season with injuries in the backfield and are 1-3 in Pac-12 play, the entire Pac-12 knows there’s always a threat with the Beavers.
Arizona might be Stanford’s best shot to earn a victory as it’s scored fewer than 20 points in its last three games in addition to having a struggling defense. Even though Oregon is 0-4 in conference play, its offense is always dangerous and quickly racks up points, making that game a tough win for the offense. Cal is 2-2 in the Pac-12, and its offense is just as potent as Oregon’s, averaging 42.3 points per game. Even though it’s the Big Game, the Cardinal could struggle to keep up with Cal’s high-powered offense. With all that in mind, the Cardinal need to start a return to winning ways in order to make a bowl.
Do-Hyoung Park (DHP): Yes, this game is absolutely a must-win. Even casting aside records and quarterbacks and defenses and whatever for a second, if Stanford can’t beat one of the worst Arizona teams in recent memory (that’s quite possibly the worst team in the Pac-12), how is it supposed to stand up to an angry and rejuvenated Cal squad? Or Oregon’s newfound offensive swagger under quarterback Justin Herbert? And that’s not to mention the psychological toll a loss to a bottom-dwelling Arizona team would have on this team.
Getting blown out by Washington and Washington State is one thing — those teams are first and second in the Pac-12 North. A close loss against Colorado is painful, but then you look up and see Colorado at first place in the Pac-12 South. But losing to last-place Arizona? That would be ridiculously difficult to overlook and move on from for a team that just isn’t accustomed to losing this much, and in this fashion — period. A loss in Tucson might start to really reveal the cracks in the foundation to the very players that are supposed to continue building on that foundation — and a complete loss of faith would be much more costly than another tally in the loss column at this point.
Lorenzo Rosas (LR): I hate to say that games are must-wins when so much of college football ebbs and flows week to week, but looking on towards the rough road schedule, Stanford at least needs to respond and rebound against an evidently less-talented Wildcat team. Bowl competition isn’t on the line right now, but this game definitely provides an opportunity for the Cardinal to get an important victory for bowl contention. Both Oregon and Cal rely on their offenses to outscore their opponents, as Matt pointed out above, while the Cardinal look incapable of winning a game when the defense gives up a single touchdown. With that in mind, Cardinal fans know that this game must somehow wake this Stanford team that has been in a complete lull since entering Seattle.
Arizona provides an opportunity for Stanford to rebound against a defense that doesn’t know how to plug any hole in their conference season thus far. The Wildcats have allowed an average of 433.6 yards per game, including an average of 5.3 yards per run in their season so far. If Shaw and Bloomgren find a way to gain momentum through the run game in Tucson, consistent yards will excite not only returning star running back Christian McCaffrey and the backfield, but also the physicality of the Tunnel Workers Union, ultimately the backbone of this football team. In the long run, the Wildcats can potentially be a springboard for the Stanford offense to carry momentum and turn its fortunes around. If Stanford aspires to reach its seventh consecutive bowl game, the Cardinal need to take every opportunity presented to them, and that starts with returning to the Farm victorious following Saturday’s game.
The Stanford offense has reached the end zone only once in its past two games largely due to its own miscues. As the Cardinal enter Arizona Stadium on Saturday night favored by six, what will be the most important responsibility for new starting quarterback Keller Chryst in order to return home victorious?
MB: As with any young quarterback, I think Chryst will have to control his nerves in his first start of the season. One way to help ease a new quarterback into the flow of a game is through conservative play-calling, which Coach Shaw evidently has no problem following. Starting the game off with short, high-percentage throws to experienced wideouts like sophomore Trenton Irwin and fifth-year senior Michael Rector, in addition to star junior running back Christian McCaffrey, will help Chryst settle into the game. Even though Arizona’s defense is giving up almost 275 passing yards per game and 15 passing touchdowns all season, it’s important for Chryst to gain confidence in his game by completing short passes before taking shots downfield against this exploitable defense. Shaw will also have to creatively involve an attacking rush early and often in order to jumpstart the offense. The Wildcats are giving up over 200 yards per game rushing and have allowed 16 rushing touchdowns all season, which the Cardinal need to exploit. If Chryst can start the game off strong with short completions and mistake-free decisions, McCaffrey and Love will have lots of running room, which should be more than enough for a Cardinal win.
DHP: Like Lorenzo, I’m not worried about Chryst playing on the road — he’s played in tougher road environments earlier this season and I doubt the first-game jitters are going to be significant. I’m going to say that establishing the deep ball is going to be critical for Stanford’s chances of winning. For all the things that Ryan Burns did well, the one thing that he was undeniably lacking in was the ability to throw the deep ball, which he would consistently underthrow or overthrow badly, something that became especially painfully evident against Colorado on Saturday. Remember how Stanford was sparked by a flea flicker touchdown against UCF last season? I think a lightning bolt play like this is exactly what this Stanford offense needs right now, and a deep play-action shot over the top (which we haven’t seen since the opener against Kansas State) might be exactly what the Cardinal need to finally get over the funk and realize their true potential on the attacking side of the ball.
LR: Ultimately, although the dual-quarterback system continually fails to succeed, I think Chryst has had a good deal of game experience so far and can control his nerves on the road against a weaker conference opponent. In my opinion, Bloomgren and Chryst need Christian McCaffrey to provide an early but patient strike into the Arizona defense in order to calm this Stanford offense. While McCaffrey’s importance for Stanford seems obvious, his early contribution would be pivotal by not only disheartening a demoralized Wildcats defense but also creating momentum and spaces to attack through the air for Chryst. For Stanford and Chryst, the offense needs to diversify and ultimately force the defense to respect the classic Cardinal brutality in the run game in order for Chryst to enjoy a great first start.
Contact Matthew Bernstein at mbernste ‘at’ stanford.edu, Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Lorenzo Rosas at enzor ‘at’ stanford.edu.