By King Jemison
Football returns to the Farm on Friday, and it could be the start of a special season. Stanford comes into Friday night’s matchup with San Diego State ranked 13th in the country, making them the second highest ranked team in the Pac-12 behind No. 6 Washington. Senior running back Bryce Love begins the year as the Heisman favorite according to Vegas. With 15 starters and the vast majority of last year’s offensive production returning, Cardinal fans hope this could finally be the year Stanford breaks into the College Football Playoff. But while there is plenty of experience coming back, there are also a myriad of questions surrounding head coach David Shaw’s team in 2018.
Friday night will begin to answer many of those questions. Here’s three big things to look out for in Stanford’s opener against San Diego State:
1) How accurate is KJ Costello?
In every one of Stanford’s five losses last year, quarterback accuracy was an issue. Keller Chryst, who has since transferred to Tennessee, completed just 50% of his passes and had two interceptions as the Cardinal struggled to a 1-2 start with losses to USC and San Diego State. And while junior quarterback KJ Costello was a major reason why Stanford recovered from that rough start to finish 9-3 and win the Pac-12 North, he also struggled mightily in losses to Washington State, USC in the Pac-12 Championship and TCU in the Alamo Bowl. Costello completed less than half of his passes (34-69 combined) and had three interceptions in those defeats. But in games that Stanford won, Costello put up a 63% completion rate with nine touchdowns against just one interception. When KJ Costello was accurate, Stanford usually won the game.
This will be Costello’s first time entering the season as the starter. Even though he missed spring practice with a hip injury, he spent all of fall camp preparing with the first-team offense. That extra preparation and the experience he gained last year should help improve his accuracy. Plus, his top four receivers are back, meaning timing and and chemistry should not be an issue like it was early last season. All signs point to Stanford having its best passing game since at least Kevin Hogan’s last season in 2015 and perhaps since the days of Andrew Luck. Whether or not the Cardinal realize that potential will be up to KJ Costello’s talented but inconsistent arm. San Diego State always has a tough defense under head coach Rocky Long, and this year his secondary will likely be the best in the Mountain West Conference. If Costello is not accurate, the Aztecs’ defensive backs will make him pay with incompletions and interceptions. Thanks to that stingy secondary, the opening game should provide a solid measuring stick for Costello’s improvement.
2) Can the defensive line consistently get in the backfield?
Last season, Stanford’s defensive line struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, finishing 8th in the Pac-12 with 2.3 sacks per game. They were equally unsuccessful at stopping the running game at the point of attack, as opponents averaged 4.6 yards per rush attempt against the Cardinal, putting them at 7th in the Pac-12. And Stanford’s leader in tackles-for-loss and sacks last year, defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, is now a member of the Buffalo Bills. The outlook is grim for Stanford’s defensive line in 2018, but there is reason to believe the Cardinal can improve even without Phillips. A pair of experienced defensive ends, junior Jovan Swann and senior Dylan Jackson, should provide steady, reliable play. Their backups are young but extremely talented, as sophomore Ryan Johnson and freshman Thomas Booker were both four star recruits. In the middle, Stanford has two more former four star defensive tackles in junior Michael Williams and sophomore Dalyn Wade-Perry. As the young talent on the defensive line gains experience, it could morph into a strength for the Stanford defense.
That being said, Stanford has one of the toughest September schedules in the country, with a visit from 15th-ranked USC and trips to No. 24 Oregon and No. 12 Notre Dame. If the defensive line can’t get pressure on the quarterback or stop the run game, then the Cardinal defense could get picked apart by those high-powered offenses and Stanford could find itself at 2-3 before October. San Diego State offers the first glimpse as to whether the defensive line will be an asset or liability in Stanford’s quest to escape its murderous September slate. The Aztecs consistently have one of the best run games in the country, and even without last year’s FBS-leading rusher Rashaad Penny, they could produce yet another NFL running back in junior Juwan Washington. If Stanford’s defensive line can’t get in the backfield, then Washington could run wild and help orchestrate a second straight crippling upset of the Cardinal.
3) Is the play-calling balanced enough to help out Bryce Love?
Stanford has always been a run-first team. In an era where college football is increasingly dominated by spread offenses and pass-heavy schemes, the Cardinal commitment to running the football and utilizing the strength of its offensive line is an advantage. It presents a unique challenge to Pac-12 defenses much more accustomed to defending against the spread. And this year, Stanford has perhaps the nation’s best running back in senior Bryce Love. It only makes sense to give Love as many touches as possible, considering he averaged an unprecedented 8.1 yards per carry and had an FBS record 13 rushes of over 50 yards. Every time he touches the football, Bryce Love is a threat to reach the endzone. Unfortunately, every time he touches the football, he’s also a threat to sustain a crippling injury that would ruin his career and most hopes for Stanford’s season.
Last year, Stanford leaned heavily on Love early. He amassed 75 carries in an incredible three game stretch early last year. In those three games, Love put up 716 yards and five touchdowns. But in the next game against Oregon, he suffered the ankle injury that would bug him for the rest of the season. Stanford’s offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard can not force Love to carry them up and down the field every game. They need to give him some help and prevent defenses from loading up the box in an all-out effort to stop him. Thankfully, the Cardinal have the passing game to loosen up the defense and give Love an even better chance at becoming the first Heisman Trophy winner at Stanford since Jim Plunkett. They just have to use it. With a game-breaking wide receiver in senior JJ Arcega-Whiteside and a red-zone monster in junior tight end Kaden Smith, Pritchard and Costello have the weapons to pick apart opposing secondaries and take some of the pressure off the running game. Bryce Love absolutely has the ability to carry Stanford’s offense, but for the sake of his health and the team’s success, he shouldn’t have to. The matchup with San Diego State will be Pritchard’s first as offensive coordinator and will offer some clues as to how he plans to utilize Love and this talented passing game throughout the season.
Overall, Stanford has more reason for optimism than anxiety in 2018. One of those major reasons for optimism is David Shaw, who consistently develops his teams to be far better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning. But with such a difficult September schedule, the Cardinal have to find answers to all their questions quickly. If Stanford can reach October undefeated or even with one loss, they will be squarely in the hunt for another Pac-12 Championship and perhaps even a Playoff berth. Friday night’s matchup with San Diego State offers the first glimpse as to whether the Cardinal can deliver on their massive potential. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. in Stanford Stadium and the game will be televised by FS1.
Contact King Jemison at kingj “at” stanford.edu