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Football roundtable: Can Cardinal win Pac-12 Championship?

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No. 14 Stanford football has earned its way to its fourth trip to the Pac-12 Championship. This time in a rematch from Week 2 of the season and a rematch of the 2015 Pac-12 Championship, the Cardinal play No. 11 USC on Friday in Levi’s Stadium. The Daily’s Sam Curry, Jose Saldana and Ariana Rollins discuss the differences in this rematch, Costello’s play and if the North will remain on the Pac-12 throne for one more year.

 

USC got the best of Stanford in their 42-24 win over the Cardinal earlier this year, but obviously the two teams have changed a lot over the course of the season. What are some factors that make this matchup different than it was in September?

Sam Curry (SC): This is an entirely different game this time around. Obviously, not having to play in Los Angeles benefits Stanford, and the change at quarterback definitely helps with the way Costello has been playing, but I think the main reason Stanford fans have to be more optimistic about their odds on Friday is the defense. The Cardinal have been hitting on all cylinders lately and have stifled some formidable offenses in Washington, Notre Dame, and even Cal, not to mention the solid performance at Washington State. I don’t think there’s any way we see Sam Darnold tear apart the Cardinal secondary or Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr (his 119 rushing yards against Stanford are his best of the season by far) run wild for big chunks of yards this time. Stanford should hold the Trojans to more like 20 points instead of 42 and at least give Bryce Love and Co. a chance to win the game, and that will be the biggest difference on Friday.

Jose Saldana (JS): This matchup will be different because of the growth of Stanford’s offensive line. For three quarters against the Trojans, the line was dominated, causing then-starter Keller Chryst to struggle finding open receivers. After David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren shuffled the line, the trenches have swung back in favor of the Cardinal. Freshman tackle Walker Little was put in at left tackle and had done a great job. Little’s probably out for the Pac-12 title game but his replacement, sophomore Devery Hamilton, has done an admirable job filling in. Senior right tackle AT Hall has probably been the best offensive lineman, and he didn’t suit start in the first game against USC. The line should perform better and this is good news for KJ Costello and Bryce Love. Costello has played well since being inserted against Washington State and should continue to do so against a Trojans defense ranked 104 in passing defense. If Costello forces the defenses to play fewer defenders in the box, then Love, although injured, can feast on Friday. Unlike Sam, I think the offense needs to outgun the Trojans. USC’s offense matches up well with the Cardinal defense. The run game has been a weakness for Stanford. It limited Notre Dame running back Josh Adams but that was the defense’s main focus. Against the Sam Darnold-led offense, playing for the run would allow Darnold to rip apart the secondary for a second game. I can see the defense play better than in the first game because its tackling couldn’t get any worse. However, with injuries to Alijah Holder, Sean Barton and Eric Cotton, the offense will need a special night to overcome a well-rested (and a much needed one for them) USC.

Ariana Rollins(AR): The Stanford team that played USC in September looks like an entirely different team that has been playing as of late. For starters, I don’t expect the defense to give up anything close to the 623 yards they did in September. They seem to have figured out a way to balance defending against the rush attack while still covering the pass, a skill they’ll need to keep up this Friday. KJ Costello is also a key difference, especially coming off his four-touchdown performance last week, bolstered by our improved offensive line. On the USC side, Sam Darnold remains a threat, as does Ronald Jones II but Stephen Carr has been injured and shouldn’t have another 100+ yard against Stanford.

 

With three solid performances in a row, and two of them against a couple of the stouter defenses in college football in Washington and Notre Dame, it’s easy to be unreasonably optimistic too soon, but the question begs to be asked: Is KJ Costello the future of Stanford football?

SC: Yes. I know it’s a relatively small sample size, but he’s running the Stanford offense like a guy with much more experience than a redshirt freshman. He’s done exactly what’s asked of a Stanford quarterback, especially with a guy like Bryce Love in the backfield, which is to make good reads and keep the opposing defense honest. He’s done that and much more at times. The last time a Stanford quarterback threw for four touchdowns in a game was when Kevin Hogan did it against Notre Dame two seasons ago, and it’s a feat even he only accomplished three times over the course of his Stanford career. Without Costello, the Cardinal wouldn’t have two wins against top-10 teams in three weeks, and that fact alone is enough to make me think the chances are good that he will be Stanford’s signal-caller for the years to come.

JS: This is interesting, since we were asking ourselves this question about Keller Chryst last year and Chryst is no longer the starter. However, there are major differences between the two quarterbacks. Last season, Chryst had the fortune of playing against weak teams and the offensive line played well towards the end of that season. Costello has faced two AP Top-10 teams in Washington and Notre Dame and he has played well against both. Four passing touchdowns against the Fighting Irish is hard to do and a few of the throws were jaw-dropping (i.e. touchdowns to Kaden Smith or Trenton Irwin). The scary part is that Costello has much more room for improvement. The coaches have mentioned Costello’s improving footwork and mechanics, and he needs to get rid of the ball quicker on some plays. But the talent is there and if he can fix these mechanics then yes, he will be the future. Unless, freshman Davis Mills is the best quarterback on the roster, but that is a problem for next year.

AR: I’m all aboard the KJ Costello train at this point, especially with the practically patented “KJ to JJ” corner route in the end zone. His ability to put passes exactly where they need to be while under pressure makes him dangerous, and he has ignited the offense in a way that speaks well to his future growth as a quarterback, especially considering he’s a redshirt freshman. His completion rate of 61.1 is not too shabby either. To be fair, our offensive line has improved a lot from the beginning of the season, but Costello’s record against top-10 teams, and storied rivals, remains remarkable. The last couple of games he’s attempted rushing a little bit more, and I’m excited to see where he can go once he gets his legs under him even more.

 

The Pac-12 North is 6-0 in Pac-12 Championship games, does that trend change this year and why?

SC: This is the first time the Pac-12 South winner has even been the favorite going into the game, so things are certainly different for this game than in past seasons, but I think Stanford still comes out on top. The Cardinal are a team playing with a lot of confidence on both sides of the ball, and they’ll get to play round two of this rivalry in their own backyard. KJ Costello has proven himself against better defenses than USC’s, Bryce Love has shown no signs of slowing down his production despite his injury, and of course the offensive line is allowing it all to happen. I don’t think the Trojan defensive line bullies the Cardinal O-line nearly as much as they did in September, and as I mentioned earlier, the Stanford defense has morphed into one of the better squads in the nation since the 42-24 loss in L.A. I think the Cardinal prevail in a close one.

JS: Since becoming the Pac-12, the North winner has always been higher ranked than the South champ … except for this year. Stanford is ranked 14th in the AP Poll while USC is ranked 11th. This might been the most competitive game since the 2012 Pac-12 title game, so the question is really hard to answer. I am going to say it does change this year (the reverse jinx has worked for me before!). There are a few things going in USC’s favor. First, the Trojans are coming off a bye-week. Seriously, USC is getting two weeks to prepare for the most important game of the year for either team while Stanford is playing in a short week. The bye-week is key since USC has had a myriad of injured players and they can heal up. The only consolation for the Cardinal is that they don’t have to travel far to play in Santa Clara. USC’s offense matches up well against Stanford, and if it comes down to a final score, I have more confidence in USC’s offense with Darnold at this point than I have with Stanford’s.

AR: To be honest, I’m never going to root against Stanford with this kind of question. This game is certainly going to be a challenge, especially with No.10 USC coming from a bye week and the memory of Stanford’s loss almost certainly being on players’ minds. Sam Darnold is a top-three draft prospect, and Alijah Holder is still out, but our secondary has proved more than capable over the past couple of games. If the Cardinal can slow down Ronald Jones II and pressure Darnold, our offensive line, coupled with Costello and Bryce Love, can take care of the rest – high ankle sprain or not. Plus, Stanford hasn’t lost at home for this whole season, and Levi’s Stadium is practically a home game.

 

Contact Sam Curry at currys ‘at’ stanford.edu, Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ariana Rollins at arianar ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sam Curry '20 is a sophomore desk editor for The Daily. Most of the time, people can find him cheering for all of the teams they probably hate, like the New England Patriots and the New York Yankees. Sam is a proud native of Big Timber, Montana, where he enjoys the great outdoors with his family and friends.