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Football round table: Moving on to Utah

After a tough loss, the Cardinal look to bounce back at home against the Utah Utes. The Daily’s sports writers weigh in.

Junior quarterback KJ Costello has been consistent for the Cardinal this year, completing 62 percent of his passes. The biggest question is, will he be allowed to unleash his inner gunslinger this Saturday. (DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

The No. 14 ranked Stanford Football team suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Notre Dame last Saturday during a tough road game in South Bend, Indiana. Although the team’s hopes of making it into the College Football Playoff are all but gone, they are still at the top of the Pac-12 North, and have the championship game set in their sights. This week they return to the Farm to take on the Utah Utes, a team riding a two-game losing streak. The Daily’s Gregory Block, King Jemison and Bobby Pragada discuss a winning game plan for the Cardinal, who they think will win the battles in the trenches and the competition level in the rest of the Pac-12.

 

Last year the stifling Utah defense nearly got the better of Stanford, holding then-quarterback Keller Chryst to 8/15 passing and 131 yards. The only reason Stanford emerged with the victory was the performance of Bryce Love, who put the team on his back with 20 carries for 152 yards and one touchdown. With Love banged up and not finding the same level of success as last year, how do the Cardinal win this game?

King Jemison (KJ): It’s gonna be on KJ Costello and the passing game to bring the offense in this one. Even if Bryce Love plays, the Utes have the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the country. Their front seven is aggressive and physical, led by athletic linebacker Chase Hansen who leads the team in tackles and sits at ninth nationally in tackles-for-loss. They’re going to make it nearly impossible to run the ball, but their secondary has not been challenged by a passing offense like Stanford’s. Their passing defense is only ranked No. 16 in the country after being shredded by Washington State QB Gardner Minshew last week. The Utes smothered Washington quarterback Jake Browning, but Costello is developing into a much more confident QB than Browning, particularly under pressure. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Kaden Smith and crew should find openings, and Costello will get them the ball if given time. But that’s the key point: if given time. The Cardinal offensive line was absolutely overwhelmed by the Notre Dame defensive front. And although the Utes defensive line isn’t quite as talented as the Irish, they have the same hard-nosed, attacking mentality. If the Stanford offensive line can’t protect KJ Costello, the Cardinal offense will struggle to score against the third ranked defense in the country. But if they can create a consistent pocket for Costello, the Stanford passing attack should be able to move the ball enough to win the game.

Gregory Block (GB): I agree that we can’t expect much from Bryce Love on Saturday. He’s still the most electric player on this team, but even when he’s been healthy this year, opposing defenses have been able to shut him down. Compared to the debacle of Keller Chryst, though, I think Stanford has to be a lot more confident with Costello leading the charge this year. He struggled against the Irish last week, but in general, he’s looked poised and more than capable at the helm. Utah is always a tough out and their defense will be strong, but I believe Stanford has a goal-line advantage over any team with the Costello to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside combination. The key for Stanford will be getting the ball into the red zone, where Costello can just throw jump balls for his big targets to come down with. There’s no cornerback on Utah’s roster capable of out-jumping or out-muscling Arcega-Whiteside.

Bobby Pragada (BP): If David Shaw comes into this game trying to run the ball, I will jump out of the student section, run onto the sideline and start begging him on my knees to let KJ run the offense through the air. I don’t know what it’s going to take at this point to get him to abandon the run, but let’s look at the things that have already happened to incentivize it this year: The offensive line has been bad in run blocking, we’ve played teams with impossibly strong defensive lines, JJ Arcega-Whiteside had a game with more than 200 yards receiving, KJ Costello has been completing 62 percent of his passes, Bryce Love has been game-planned against time and time again, and to top it all off, now he’s injured. Shaw needs to throw Scarlett out there in pass protection, cobble together a pocket and let KJ throw the damn ball to his gigantic, incredibly talented receiving threats. There’s no excuse now except “we’re a running team,” which reaches a point of diminishing returns. Utah’s run defense is the best the Cardinal have seen all year, but their secondary is suspect, and like Greg said, there’s nobody in the Utah secondary that’s capable of covering our receivers. It’ll be like feeding the ball to the post in basketball: get the short yards over the middle, take the shots downfield and don’t stop running the ball entirely–just don’t let them put nine men in the box every single snap. Make them respect you, make them fear you.

Utah running back Zach Moss pounded the ball through the tackles 30 total times in last week’s loss to Washington State, emerging with 106 yards and a touchdown. With Utah seeming to be as committed to the run this year as David Shaw, which team do you think will be more successful in the ground game?

KJ: I think Utah will finish the game with more rushing yards than Stanford will. So far this year, the Cardinal have only out-rushed two opponents: USC and UC Davis. The Trojans are ranked No. 91 in rushing offense, and the Aggies are an FCS team, so those performances don’t mean too much. Except maybe it’s impressive that Stanford out-rushed anyone, considering they’re currently ranked No. 120 out of 130 teams in rushing at a woeful 94.4 yards per game. The Cardinal offensive line has been completely unable to open up holes for Bryce Love and the other running backs. I don’t expect that to change against a really good Utah front seven that boasts one of the best rushing defenses in the game. But I do think the final rushing numbers will be pretty close because the Utes have been pretty terrible at running the ball as well. They’re ranked No. 94 nationally in rushing yards per game. Zach Moss is a good back who runs hard and physical, as he’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season. He will present some problems for the Stanford front seven, but the brain of Lance Anderson and the brawn of the Cardinal linebackers should slow him down. I don’t think any player will crack 100 yards rushing in this one.

GB: Utah definitely has the advantage on the ground in this game, which is strange to say, considering that Stanford has one of the most talented running backs in the country. The main thing going for the Utes is the recent failures of the Stanford defensive line against the run. The Cardinal gave up 272 yards on the ground to Notre Dame and they lacked the physicality up front that has been such a staple of their defense over the past decade. Utah’s rushing attack isn’t the scariest, but if Stanford’s line can’t figure things out before Saturday night, it could lead to another big rushing day for a Utes team that had 204 yards on the ground last week against Washington State.  

BP: I disagree with King, I do see someone breaching the 100-yard rushing mark in this game. I think Bryce is still talented and healthy enough to do some serious damage, provided his quarterback can clear the linebackers away from the line of scrimmage. I think, or at least I hope, that Stanford will get out to an early lead with some aggressive play-calling and deep shots down the field, allowing the offense to play some clock control, run a little bit more traditionally and let Love do his thing. Let’s not forget that he’s still the fastest player on the field by a long shot, and with a little bit of swing around the tackles, getting him into space, he can easily outpace the linebackers from Utah and produce as only he is capable of doing. The Utah running game has been massively inefficient. Thirty rushes for 106 yards? That’s 3.5 yards per carry, showing that their commitment to the run game isn’t necessarily indicative of a strength in that area of the game. Love will lead the game in rushing. (Ian) Book it!

Stanford is still the heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 division and has the lead in the North thanks to its win over Oregon. Which team in the entirety of the Pac-12 do you believe has the best chance to take down this Stanford team and win the Pac-12 championship?

KJ: No. 10 Washington was the heavy Pac-12 favorite coming into this year, and I think they still are at this point in the season. The Huskies have by far the most talented defense in the Pac-12, with a secondary that can shut down anyone. They’re ranked first nationally in scoring defense after completely stifling No. 20 BYU in a 35-7 victory. Jake Browning may not be the All-American QB he was predicted to be after his stellar sophomore season, but he’s still a competent signal-caller. Myles Gaskin is a solid running back, and Aaron Fuller is one of the best wide receivers in the conference. I find it very hard to believe that Stanford could beat Washington on the road at this point. Maybe something will change between now and their Nov. 3 date in Husky Stadium, but right now the Stanford offensive line is not strong enough to withstand the Husky defensive onslaught. For now, the Cardinal just need to focus on beating Utah, Arizona State and Washington State so that they have a margin for error against Washington.

GB: Once again, I agree with King that the Huskies are by far the team with the best chance to win the conference, as well as the Pac-12 team with the best chance to reach the College Football Playoff. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin still lead a potent offense, but it’s the Huskies defense that has been outstanding to start the year. They have only given up an average of 11.6 points a game, which is best in the country, and linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has been an absolute stud. He has 59 tackles on the season already, including a 20-tackle performance against Arizona State on Sept. 22. The Nov. 3 game in Seattle is shaping up to be the biggest game of the Pac-12 season, and the way both teams are playing right now, it seems like the Huskies defense will be too much for Costello and an underachieving Bryce Love.

BP: Don’t look now, but the Big Game might be a little more impactful than it has in years past this November. With Cal falling to Oregon, their Pac-12 north chances are basically out the window, but the Golden Bears are actually kind of scary. They’re averaging 200 yards on the ground and 200 yards in the air, they’ve flirted all year with the AP rankings, and yes, they got smacked by Oregon, but guess who else was getting smacked by Oregon for a majority of the game. That’s right, it was us. And although their weird two-quarterback strategy is eerily reminiscent of the absolute chaos that was the 2017 Stanford quarterback position, we still managed to win games with that lineup. I think we’d better watch our backs; this historic Big Game winning streak we’re on might come to an abrupt end. Just a little sneaking suspicion, based very loosely on facts. But hey, I didn’t want to say Washington for a third time.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu, and Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu

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