Stanford rode the shoulders of an explosive offensive playmaker, who posted 200-plus yards and entered his name into the early-season Heisman discussion, en route to a win over San Diego State University (SDSU) on Friday night.
It was a familiar script for the Cardinal, except for the fact that it wasn’t Bryce Love’s name at the top of the stat sheet. Instead, it was wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside who had a career night as 13th-ranked Stanford (1-0) shook off early woes on both sides of the ball, easing to a 31-10 victory.
The senior exploded for 226 yards — good for third all-time in the Stanford record books — on six catches, along with three touchdowns and a two-point conversion to boot. It was the first time since 1999 that a Cardinal wideout recorded 200-plus yards in a game.
Love, an AP Preseason All-American and Stanford’s best player last season, was shut out by the Aztecs. He struggled to find holes behind the Stanford offensive line and finished with 38 yards on 18 carries.
Love’s quiet night was a clear product of the Aztec game plan, which was to take the ball out of the running back’s hands and force a relatively unproven Stanford passing attack to make plays down the stretch.
Despite the frustrating night, head coach David Shaw was pleased with his star player’s performance.
“Everyone will talk about [Love’s] lack of yardage. He didn’t care. We won the football game. I want to say he missed one [blitz] pickup, the rest were phenomenal,” he said after the game.
The Stanford offense finished with 50 rushing yards and 332 passing yards, an uncharacteristic stat line for a team that prides itself on playing run-first, smashmouth football.
Part of the problem for Stanford was that the offensive line is still in the process of figuring itself out. Starting center Jesse Burkett was sidelined with an injury, as redshirt freshman Drew Dalman started in his place. Coaches were also still evaluating a position battle at left guard, where both Foster Sarell and Devery Hamilton saw playing time.
Shaw, however, mostly credited the Aztecs (0-1) for forcing the Cardinal to play outside of their identity by shutting down the run and daring them to pass the ball.
“That might be the most blitzes we’ve seen in one game during my 12 years [here],” said Shaw.
The Aztecs telegraphed their intent from the get-go. On the very first play of the game, they stacked the box and forced an unprepared Stanford to burn a timeout. A decent first drive sputtered out for the Cardinal when Jet Toner failed to connect on a 38-yard field goal try.
SDSU dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball early on, and looked the better team for large stretches of the first half. On their second possession, the Aztecs found the endzone after consecutive runs of 22, 10 and 40 yards from running back Juwan Washington.
The SDSU offensive line, returning all five starters from last season, bullied the Cardinal’s fairly inexperienced front-three rotation in the first half, as Washington rushed for 114 yards going into the break.
The Stanford offense was anemic until the waning moments of the first half, when junior quarterback K.J. Costello connected with Arcega-Whiteside on a 38-yard touchdown with 27 seconds remaining, igniting a spark that would grow into a full-on wildfire in the second half.
Stanford’s unsung hero was wideout Trenton Irwin, who made perhaps the best, and definitively the most bizarre play of the game to set up the score. With under 2 minutes remaining in the half, a Costello pass attempt was tipped and intercepted by by Aztec lineman Noble Hall. As Hall began taking it the other way, Irwin flew back on defense to strip him and recover the football. When the dust settled, the play resulted in a net loss of 13 yards for the Cardinal instead of a turnover.
Two plays later, Costello found Arcega-Whiteside deep to take a 9-7 lead into the half.
Before that though, the Cardinal did manage to get on the scoreboard with some help from its defense and special teams. Early in the second quarter, Stanford punter Jake Bailey rocketed a 63-yard punt, pinning SDSU at their own one-yard line. Three plays later, linebacker Bobby Okereke put a vicious body-slam on Aztec quarterback Christian Chapman in the endzone to force a safety.
It was one of five sacks on the night for Stanford. The defensive line, though inconsistent at times, was shored up by a stout Cardinal secondary, which limited the Aztecs to 113 yards in the air. Cornerbacks Alameen Murphy and Paulson Adebo started in place of the injured Alijah Holder and Malik Antoine.
Adebo — playing in his first career game — was particularly impressive. The redshirt freshman recorded 5.5 tackles and two pass breakups, including one he nearly picked off with nothing but daylight in front of him going the other way.
The defense found its groove after the early SDSU touchdown drive, holding the Aztecs to just 263 yards of total offense. Shaw was complimentary of defensive coordinator Lance Anderson for getting his group ready for the demands of a season opener, especially against a physical SDSU team. “[He’s] the most underrated defensive coordinator in America,” said Shaw.
In the second half, the Cardinal offense poured it on through the air as Arcega-Whiteside hauled in touchdowns on the team’s first two drives, the second coming on an 80-yard strike.
Arcega-Whiteside was simply too big and strong for the Aztec cornerbacks, who were tossed on an island across from No. 19, with no safety help over the top, for most of the game.
SDSU only began double-teaming him near the end of the third quarter, but by then, it was too late.
Tight end Colby Parkinson would score a touchdown of his own, reeling in a 19-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Costello would finish 21-for-31 for 332 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. It was an on-and-off night for the junior, with more than his fair share of errant throws. Costello got plenty of help from Arcega-Whiteside though, who seemed to catch anything and everything thrown remotely in his direction.
The wideout’s breakout night vaults his name into the way-too-early Heisman conversation, alongside Love, who will need to do more statistically going forward to stay relevant in the national conversation.
SDSU’s sell-out-on-the-run defensive approach, and its relative lack of success, highlight a scary fact about the dynamism of the Cardinal offense. Try to stop the inside threat of Bryce Love by stuffing the box, and they have the ability to cause serious damage outside and over the top through the air.
Last year, the Stanford passing game was far from fearsome, averaging a little over 186 yards per game. But this season, Costello should have greater comfort in the pocket, and the Cardinal return an experienced receiving corps stocked with massive targets. Arcega-Whiteside, Irwin, Parkinson and Kaden Smith all figure to make an impact on the field and have future draft-pick potential.
In Arcega-Whiteside’s mind, the Cardinal’s plethora of offensive weapons means there is no optimal way to defend them.
“Bryce Love is one of the most talented running backs in the country. Of course you need extra support [for him], and that just frees up everything on the outside.
“If teams want to stack the box, we’ll take the one-on-one matchups, and if they want to play zone we’ll block for No. 20. He’ll take it to the house,” he said.
On Friday night, Stanford managed to find its passing game, more or less giving up on their run-first approach in the second half. But if the Cardinal can get both phases of the offense clicking at the same time, they look capable of wreaking serious havoc.
Next up for the Cardinal is a big-time matchup with No. 15 USC next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 5:30 pm, and the game will be broadcast live on Fox.
Contact Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu.