By Samuel Curry
Junior running back Bryce Love broke the Stanford single-game rushing record with 301 rushing yards against Arizona State. The Cardinal will face their toughest defensive test when they travel to Salt Lake City to face off against Utah. The Daily’s Ariana Rollins, Jose Saldana and Sam Curry discuss whether Love and sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello will be successful against the Utes, the defense’s ability to stop Utah’s quarterback and what Stanford can do to survive the rest of its schedule.
The Stanford offense was able to deliver back-to-back 500+ yard games in their first two home games of the season, with junior running back Bryce Love putting up absurd numbers in the process. This weekend, however, the Cardinal will meet a much stronger defense in the Utah Utes, who rank 17th in the FBS in yards allowed per game. With the Utes only allowing 87 yards per game on the ground, and Love averaging just under 218 rushing yards per game, something has to give. Will Love and sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello continue their success or will they find themselves stifled in Salt Lake?
Jose Saldana (JS): The Utes definitely have smothered their opposition, but they have faced North Dakota (an FCS team that currently is 1-4), BYU (no run game), San Jose State (122th in scoring) and Arizona (ran for 200 yards against Utah last week). Utah has a good maybe great defense, but its high defensive rankings are skewed by the competition it has faced so far in the season. I don’t expect the Cardinal to put up over 500 total yards or for Bryce Love to match his season average for rushing yards per game. Against Arizona State, I was impressed by Love’s ability to churn out yardage even without any holes, which was something he wasn’t doing earlier in the season. This is important against the Utes, where there he might not have the holes he saw against UCLA and Arizona State. K.J. Costello will need to continue his solid play to stretch the field for Love’s power runs. Costello will have to be careful with his throws as Utah has eight interceptions on the year. Stanford needs to get short third downs in order to control time of possession, which will be the key to winning this game.
Sam Curry (SC): The Utes have yet to face a running back with anything near the speed and overall skill set Love possesses, but even so, they will undoubtedly be more solid up front than both Arizona State and UCLA. I think Love’s success depends directly on Costello’s. The last two games, although his stats don’t really speak to this, Costello has been a breath of fresh air for the Cardinal offense, finding holes in the defense and throwing strikes to his receivers when necessary, forcing opposing defenses to respect the Stanford air attack. If Costello is able to keep the sturdier Utes defense honest and convert on longer third-down situations, I think Love has a good chance of racking up some impressive stats yet again, and the Cardinal offense will thrive for a third straight week despite the challenges the Utah defense presents.
Ariana Rollins (AR): The answer here is two-fold, the first part being that Bryce Love is one of the top running backs in college football right now, so whatever the Utes have managed in the past will certainly be put to the test against a playmaker like Love. However, there are those that say he is only as good as he has been because we haven’t played great defenses thus far, and Utah is certainly much better. I’m a little worried given their defensive ranking compared to UCLA’s and ASU’s, and don’t expect Love to come anywhere near his record, though he’ll certainly still do some damage. The real test will be to see how K.J. Costello performs against a stronger defense, and whether he continues to motivate the team in the way we’ve seen in the past two weeks.
The Cardinal defense has yet to face a true dual-threat quarterback this season, and if sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley is back from an injury he suffered against Arizona two weeks ago, he is certainly comfortable running the ball, accruing 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground thus far this season. With the struggles the Stanford defense has had against some opposing signal-callers already, how do you see the Cardinal handling a quarterback who can make plays with his legs as well?
JS: The Stanford defense did a great job defending Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins last week. He was held to 181 passing yards and two interceptions. Prior to that game, Wilkins was averaging over 300 passing yards per game. Stanford was able to limit Wilkins because of Arizona State’s bad offensive line, and the defense was allowing the Sun Devils to run. The Cardinal will maybe be able to do this against the Utes, but Utah has a better offensive line and a decent running game. Against USC, quarterback Sam Darnold showed that Stanford’s defense couldn’t handle when the quarterback left the pocket, so Tyler Huntley may have a good game on the ground. The Utes have had two weeks to prepare for this game, so they might be prepared to start the game with design runs if the Cardinal are playing the pass.
SC: The added challenge of a dual-threat quarterback has me worried for the Cardinal. The defensive front has definitely done a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback the last two games, but as we saw against Darnold and a little bit against Josh Rosen, a quarterback with pocket presence and even the slightest bit of mobility can give this Stanford defense a lot of trouble. I don’t yet trust this defense against a quarterback content to sit in the pocket, so a quarterback that can escape pressure and burn you on the ground has me concerned about one more thing the Cardinal might not be able to stop. The answer to this question is crucial for Stanford, as it will likely determine how successful they will be at stopping teams like Washington and Notre Dame.
AR: The Stanford defense, like many defenses, has been pretty good this season when it knew what to expect. However, we have consistently struggled with teams that have a couple of offensive threats, and while the defensive front has been good with pressure recently, they have had issues with mobile quarterbacks. To be honest, all parts of the defense have struggled with quarterbacks, and I’m not excited to see how we match up against a dual-threat, especially given how we keep having to line-up on defense. On the bright side, it’s looking like Huntley won’t play, and Williams, while formidable, isn’t quite as threatening.
Stanford plays four of its remaining seven games against ranked teams (Utah, Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame). What will the Cardinal have to do in order survive this brutal stretch?
JS: The defense needs to improve especially on the line. That is a hard task because the defensive front is the weakest position group on the defense. Outside of the game against Rice, the Cardinal haven’t put a total defensive effort. The team gives up either a ton of passing yards or rushing yards. This might not change in the future as the Cardinal aren’t talented upfront to stop an entire offense. Going to Utah and Washington State be will incredibly tough on the defense, but the offense might be affected the most. The offensive line has definitely improved from the start of the year, but it will need show the improvement is real against tougher defenses. K.J. Costello will need to continue to improve and to take advantage of the defenses focusing on Love. I don’t worry about Love getting his 50+ yard carry for a touchdown against these defense, but I worry if he can make 1-yard runs to 3-4 yard runs. Doing that successfully will go along way to continue a humming Stanford offense the rest of the season.
SC: In order to have a chance at the Pac-12 North, K.J. Costello needs to prove he can throw against above-average defenses, the offensive line needs to prove they can protect him and create running lanes for Love against above-average defenses, and the defense needs to be able to stop the pass while rushing more than three defensive linemen. When the Cardinal defense was torn apart by USC, it was due to Stanford’s inability to cover receivers without five defensive backs on the field. Darnold forced the Cardinal to go to a nickel defense, and the USC running backs were able to run wild as a result. We could see similarly frustrating results against Washington and Washington State if the Stanford defensive front and secondary aren’t able to coordinate a complete defensive performance. While the Stanford offense has many questions left to answer, they showed me they are capable of putting up plenty of points on top competition in the first half of the USC game. The defense has yet to show me it is capable of stopping the better offenses of the Pac-12, so I think Stanford’s success for the rest of the season will likely depend on their defense.
AR: K.J. Costello has been great thus far, but I’m worried about how much that has been because our offensive line hasn’t been truly pushed recently. In order to keep our offense variable, our line has to protect the pocket, unlike earlier this year, and also try to create some holes for Bryce Love, who can do practically anything with some good blocks. Perhaps in terms of improvement though, our defense needs to work on its coverage. We seem to be able to protect against one kind of attack per game, and that’s just not sustainable against some of the high-powered offenses we’re about to go against. Other than that, Stanford will always do the same thing — play tough and run them down — and everyone will always know to expect that, so we just have to keep doing it better than the week before.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford .edu, Sam Curry at currys ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ariana Rollins at arianar ‘at’ stanford.edu.