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Football round table: Embracing the bye week

Stanford football claims some much needed rest after two straight losses. The Daily’s writers chime in on what the team needs going forward.

Lonely without Love, the football team awaits senior star running back Bryce Love's return after a game-ending ankle injury against Notre Dame on Sept. 29. (KRISTA CHEW/isiphotos.com)

The now unranked Stanford football team (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) suffered a second consecutive crushing defeat, this time at the hands of unranked Utah (3-2, 1-2) in their home stadium. The home crowd sat stunned as the powerful Stanford rushing attack crumbled, the Stanford rushing defense disappeared and the play of junior quarterback K.J. Costello fluctuated. Still sitting somewhat comfortably atop the Pac-12 north, Stanford is afforded their much needed bye this week, as they prepare for a difficult slew of conference games. Writers King Jemison, Daniel Martinez-Krams and Julio Ballista discuss the sorry state of the Stanford offensive line, the murky future of Bryce Love and the best way to win the defensive front in the trenches.

The biggest disappointment of the 2018 season has got to be the continued poor play of the offensive line. This is shocking, as Stanford usually boasts some of the most physical players in the FBS. They have two five-star recruits, an experienced center and theoretical depth. What on earth is going on with the unit, and how can they possibly improve?

King Jemison (KJ): Stanford coaches and players have tried to offer explanations for the troubling struggles of the Cardinal offensive line, but they’ve all been pretty flimsy and vague. Usually, they say it boils down to “execution,” or a lack thereof. Coach Shaw has repeatedly said that one person not doing their job on any given play has doomed the offense, and that one person has been different every play. He’s shifted the blame away from the other coaches and players, generally placing it on himself. But the kind of inconsistency and poor play we’ve seen from the once-great Stanford offensive line is not just about one player or execution. Injuries are a huge part of the problem. Sophomore five-star tackle Foster Sarell has been out since the previous bye week and fellow tackles Walker Little and A.T. Hall have been hampered for most of the season as well, despite the fact that they’re still in the starting lineup. When Stanford has its full complement of offensive line talent available, we will see improvement. That being said, injuries aren’t the only problem. Long-time offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren left after last season to take the head coaching job at Rice. Tavita Pritchard has done a fine job shifting from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, but new offensive line coach Kevin Carberry still has plenty to prove. Changing offensive line coaches challenges the chemistry of that all-important unit. I believe Carberry is a solid coach, but this transition has clearly been difficult for the heralded Stanford O-line that came into the season with very high expectations.

The good news? Things will get better as the Cardinal players adjust to Carberry’s system. This bye week should be a great opportunity for Carberry and his players to look over the film, work on technique and, most important, heal. Little and Hall should be much closer to full strength by next Thursday night. I expect we will see a much better performance from this Stanford offensive line that was expected to be a strength of the team but has truly been a weakness this far.  

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): For a team to have their identity stripped, beaten and ridiculed repeatedly on national television, a lot more than one thing has to go wrong. The once dominant Stanford offensive line, a perennial powerhouse, the exemplar of intellectual brutality and launching point of numerous NFL careers, has been reduced to a liability. King could not be more correct. Injuries are most certainly a factor, as is coaching. If a line is getting consistently bullied by the opposing defense, truly beaten physically as Stanford is, then the onus is on the offensive coordinator and the quarterback to ensure the ball is getting out faster so the line does not have to hold for three, four, or five seconds. Tavita Pritchard and KJ Costello can work during these bye weeks to make that shift, so Stanford is no longer getting beaten mentally. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. While it’s easy to view that as a negative, and the two losses it has caused definitely are, it also means that if anything starts going right, the line may return to something at least reminiscent of its elite form.

Julio Ballista (JB):  The Cardinal offensive line was difficult to watch. Sitting in the stands on a beautiful Saturday night in Palo Alto, all I could hear was murmurs of doubt from my dorm-mates.

“Where is Bryce Love?”

“Why do we keep getting rid of it?”

“What’s happening with Stanford?”

Being so heavily defined by the offensive line can prove to be a blessing in some senses, but an absolute liability in others. There’s a level of confidence that completely diminishes when the O-line can’t perform. Jaylon Johnson of the Utah Utes had a 100-yard interception return – a pass that was forced into double coverage by Costello. These type of plays are only more likely to occur with weaker protection up front. As King suggested, an adjustment period is essential for the Cardinal. With the bye week, there can be closer analysis to what’s going wrong, which can incite the fierce Cardinal confidence we are so used to seeing on the field.

The man who needs this bye more than anyone else on the team might be star running back Bryce Love. Not only has he been ineffective this year, he’s now sustained another ankle injury, the extent of which is currently unknown. Do you believe Bryce Love will be able to put on another performance this year reminiscent of his unbelievable junior season?

KJ: Bryce Love will have his breakout game. Coach Shaw says he should be good to go by the Arizona State game, so if he can stay healthy over the next few weeks, his stats could start to creep back up to those All-American levels. But Bryce hasn’t been the problem so far. It’s been the offensive line. For all the reasons I stated above, I believe the offensive line will improve. But right now, they have set the ceiling for Bryce Love, and it’s a low one. For years, Stanford has been blessed with an incredible offensive line and an incredible running back. They only have one half of that winning formula right now. If that starts to change, Stanford should get back to its old ways of bullying opponents into submission with the ground game.

DMK: I see no reason to doubt Bryce Love. We are discussing a preseason Heisman frontrunner. Love will find a way to break off the Herculean runs everyone predicted, if for no other reason than because the Cardinal have a game remaining on their schedule against the 126th ranked (of 129) rush defense in FBS, Oregon State. By then, Bryce will be sure to be healthy enough to exploit a defense currently giving up 269.5 rush yards per game on 6.68 yards per carry. Love owes it to himself and his team to put up highlight reel performances to boost his NFL draft stock and propel the Cardinal to another PAC-12 North title. With a revamped offensive line, an intimation of inventive play calling and — most important — time to get healthy, Love will once again be on top of college football.

JB: Dynamic. Explosive. Adaptive. Bryce Love. Don’t be fooled by his previous ineffective performances – many of his woes come from the struggles of the offensive line. That, paired with the predictability of handing off to our star running back, leads to defensive game plans catered to the running game. For Love to explode, our offensive line must first improve, which would open up the pass game. Once Costello is throwing strikes downfield, Bryce Love will be a force that cannot be stopped, and the explosive Cardinal offense will be revitalized again. These mid-season weaknesses serve as lessons to a developing offense – lessons that will only strengthen their team as a whole moving forward. This is without mentioning the main motivator for Love – his NFL draft rating. Imagine a Cardinal offense with an offensive line, and a motivated Love hungry for yards. It’s a winning formula that cannot be stopped.

In addition to their offensive line woes, Stanford hasn’t been able to execute their usual clock-controlling game plan due to their unusually weak run defense. Teams are moving the ball at will on the Cardinal, and there doesn’t seem to be many answers on the field. The pass rush, while accumulating sacks, has been questionable at times as well, failing to pressure quarterbacks. How does the team address these d-line issues in the bye?

KJ: Stanford’s defensive line struggled last year, and that was with the dominant Harrison Phillips manning the middle. Horrible Harry led all FBS defensive tackles in total tackles and was the definition of a run-stopper. Stanford really misses his interior presence because they have the same issues on the outside as they did last year. The Cardinal have no dominant defensive ends. The outside linebackers make up for that deficit, but Stanford can’t generate any pressure on the quarterback when they rush three because the line simply isn’t good enough. Jovan Swann and Dylan Jackson are solid but unspectacular defensive ends. Michael Williams and Dalyn Wade-Perry are talented but raw defensive tackles. The truth is, Stanford’s defensive line just isn’t talented enough right now. But the biggest area of improvement over the course of the season will be experience, and that should lead to better play up front. The starting defensive line looks very different from last year’s, so as these new starters get more comfortable in their role, their production will go up. Stanford’s defensive line will never be the strength of this defense, but by the end of the season, hopefully it won’t be a weakness either.

DMK: Stanford’s havoc rate, which is a measure of the percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble or defensed a pass, is 17.2 percent, ranked 51 in the nation. However, broken down by unit, while the linebackers are ranked an impressive 13, and defensive backs a respectable 45, the defensive line is an atrocious 120. After giving up 178, 272 and 222 rushing yards consecutively, the defensive line is mired in one of its worst slumps in recent memory.  While I mentioned earlier that Oregon State has an abysmal run defense, Stanford’s is ranked No. 9 in the PAC-12, currently giving up 164.3 rush yards per game. Whenever a line is unable to generate pressure on its own, the coaching staff must step in with stunts and blitzes to help out. Luckily, the bye week offers the coaching staff ample opportunity to implement these tactics. Whether they are able to do so successfully will be readily apparent when the Cardinal face off against Arizona State a week from Thursday.

JB: At first glance, the Stanford defensive line seems to be a core contributor to our struggles. The Utes scavenged for 222 yards on Saturday, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. This efficiency not only moved the Utes down the field and led to some scoring, but it also drained the clock, and led to desperation plays from the Stanford offense. Overall, though, offense for both teams was very comparable, with Stanford edging out four more first downs than Utah had. The Utes’ success is very much attributed to their control of the clock, and their consistent takeaways due to the Stanford offensive line. A great first step for the defense would be to try and force more turnovers. Sacking a quarterback is one thing, but a great momentum shift, such as a strip sack fumble, is a force that the Cardinal so desperately needed, but could never get.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu and Julio Ballista at juliob ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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