By King Jemison
Stanford football is 3-0 and ranked seventh in the country. The Cardinal have already collected their first Pac-12 victory over in-state rival USC and beat two other solid non-conference opponents in San Diego State and UC Davis. It’s been a great start to football season on the Farm, and Stanford may have a chance to win its first Pac-12 Championship since 2015 or perhaps even make its first ever trip to the College Football Playoff. But with two huge road games coming up against No. 20 Oregon and No. 8 Notre Dame, it’s a good time to recap what’s happened so far and what’s next for the Cardinal.
Game 1 (8/31): No. 13 Stanford 31, San Diego State 10
The Cardinal opened the season with a dominant victory in Stanford Stadium. It was a revenge game for Stanford, as the Aztecs had beaten them 20-17 early last year. In the first half of this year’s meeting, it looked like another upset might be possible. San Diego State actually led 7-2 late in the second quarter before junior quarterback K.J. Costello found senior wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for a 38 yard touchdown that gave the Cardinal a 9-7 lead at halftime. The second half was all Stanford. Costello went 21 of 31 for 332 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Arcega-Whiteside had 226 yards and three touchdowns receiving to earn Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors. Although preseason Heisman Trophy favorite senior running back Bryce Love was held to just 29 yards, the Stanford offense was able to move the ball effectively against a good defense. And the Stanford defense, expected to perhaps be a weakness this year, was fantastic. They held the Aztecs to just 263 total yards and had five sacks. Overall, it was an eye-opening first performance for the Cardinal and quickly vaulted them into the Top 10, and this win looks even more impressive after San Diego State beat No. 23 Arizona State 28-21 last Saturday.
Game 2 (9/8): No. 10 Stanford 17, No. 17 USC 3
In another revenge game for the Cardinal, they once again dominated at home to move to 1-0 in Pac-12 play. The Trojans beat Stanford twice last season, including in the Pac-12 Championship. But their quarterback Sam Darnold was drafted by the New York Jets and so heralded true freshman J.T. Daniels got the start at QB for USC. Cardinal defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and his defense made life miserable for Daniels in his first road start, as they sacked him four times and forced him into three turnovers. The Stanford defense also held the Trojans to just 114 yards rushing. The Cardinal led 14-0 at halftime before milking the clock in the second half for an easy win. Bryce Love led the Stanford offense with 136 yards and a touchdown on the ground. KJ Costello connected with 6’7” sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson for the other Stanford touchdown, and Costello finished with 183 yards passing. Junior safety Malik Antoine sealed the game with two fourth quarter interceptions. In their first game against a ranked opponent, Stanford collected another statement victory, although USC has since fallen out of the rankings after a 37-14 road loss to Texas.
Game 3 (9/15): No. 9 Stanford 30, UC Davis 10
In what was undoubtedly the sloppiest and least impressive Stanford performance so far this season, the Cardinal still cruised to a comfortable win over an undefeated FCS team. Davis came into the game ranked 23rd in the FCS polls after an upset win over FBS-level San Jose State. The Aggies actually scored first with a field goal after picking off KJ Costello deep in Stanford territory. They looked poised to take a bigger lead after Costello threw another ugly interception on the next possession, but the Stanford defense held, and the Cardinal controlled the game the rest of the way. Bryce Love was out with an undisclosed injury (he’ll be back next week), but junior running back Trevor Speights filled in admirably with 87 yards on 11 carries. Costello recovered to throw for 214 yards and two touchdowns to Arcega-Whiteside. Junior tight end Kaden Smith led Stanford in receiving yards for the second straight game, as he had six catches for 68 yards. The Cardinal defense held Davis to 50 yards rushing and didn’t give up a touchdown until the last play of the game. Although they certainly didn’t earn any style points, Stanford finished off the homestand 3-0 and look fairly healthy heading into the road trip.
Rest of the Season Preview
9/22 at No. 20 Oregon:
The Ducks have the best QB in the Pac-12 in Justin Herbert and an improving defense. Auzten Stadium is also one of the toughest places to play in the conference, and it’ll be Stanford’s first road game of the season. But the Cardinal must win this one in order to win the Pac-12 North.
9/29 at No. 8 Notre Dame
The Irish have one of the best defenses in the country, and they beat No. 14 Michigan in their opener. This will be a key chance for the Cardinal to play under the national spotlight in South Bend, Indiana. If Stanford gets through this game undefeated, they’ll likely move into the Top 5 nationally.
11/3 at No. 10 Washington
Although the Huskies lost to Auburn in Week One, they’re still the Pac-12 favorite and have the best defense in the conference. Husky Stadium is probably the most intimidating venue in the Pac-12. This game seems to decide the Pac-12 North every year and probably will again this year.
Offense: Junior QB KJ Costello
As Costello goes, so goes the Stanford offense. He has a solid 21:7 career touchdown to interception ratio. But when he struggled last season, the offense usually sputtered. He seems to have improved his accuracy this season, and he throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the country. His targets are huge and talented, especially senior wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and junior tight end Kaden Smith. If he continues to get better, Stanford might have the best passing attack in the Pac-12.
Defense: Fifth Year LB Bobby Okereke
Okereke is the most important returning starter from last year’s defense. He made 97 tackles including 7.5 tackles-for-loss last season. He already has 15 tackles and two TFLs this year. He might be the best tackler and pass rusher on Stanford’s roster and is essentially the QB of the defense from his middle linebacker position.
Special Teams: Senior P Jake Bailey
Bailey might be the best punter in the country. Despite his unheralded position, he’s a weapon for Stanford. He consistently flips field position and pins opposing offenses deep in their own territory. His longest punt of the season traveled 66 yards, and he’s averaging 43.1 yards per punt. Last year, he pinned teams inside the 20 yard line 24 times in 57 tries. In close games, his ability to win the field position battle for Stanford is critical.
Freshman to Watch: Defensive End Thomas Booker
Booker was perhaps the most important recruit for Stanford in the 2018 class. The pass rusher out of Maryland was a consensus four star prospect ranked in the Top 25 nationally at his position. Thanks to a lack of depth at defensive end, Booker has gotten plenty of playing time right away. In his career debut against San Diego State, he made four tackles and one sack. Against UC Davis, he snagged a one-handed interception to end the Aggie drive deep in Stanford territory. He should be a star in the near future.
Stanford was 3-5 away from home last year, including 2-3 in true road games. With six road games upcoming including three against ranked teams, that must improve for Stanford to win the Pac-12 or go to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Stanford is certainly off to a great start in 2018, but the hardest games are yet to come. The two week road trip at the end of September will determine whether the Cardinal can really be a playoff contender. If they get through that stretch undefeated, it could be a special season for the Cardinal. Either way, Stanford football will always be a magical part of fall on the Farm.
Contact King Jemison at kingj “at” stanford.edu.