The Stanford Cardinal football team now sits unranked in the AP poll, following a blowout loss against now No. 4 Notre Dame and their unfortunate home upset at the hands of Utah. Following a week off to rest and reflect, the Cardinal charge back into the fray, taking on unranked Arizona State and head coach Herm Edwards in a Thursday night showdown. Daily writers Julio Ballista, King Jemison and Shan Reddy share their thoughts on the improvements of Stanford position groups, the health status of Bryce Love and the state of the Pac-12.
Stanford grabbed their much-needed bye last week, rehabbing and practicing before they resume conference play. Which position group do you think will be the most improved during Thursday night’s game after utilizing the bye week?
Julio Ballista (JB): It’s hard to envision a Stanford offensive line as bad as weeks previous. Rest from our men up front, along with time to discuss flaws in our strategy and approach, should be enough to boost the offensive line to be the wall they are so used to being.
Despite the rest, the team must travel to Arizona for Thursday’s game, which may be a factor to their overall confidence. The team has underperformed, especially after the upsetting game against Utah. I have no doubt, though, that time is all this Cardinal offense needed. Although starting undefeated for a large portion of the season, the first half of every game was low-scoring and showcased how dismantled our team was.
This was finally time to stop playing on the edge, slow down and brings things together. I’m excited to see how it all comes together Thursday evening.
King Jemison (KJ): I agree with Julio that the offensive line should look better, and the primary reason is health. The released depth chart for this week’s game showed Devery Hamilton back at left guard, and starting tackles Walker Little and A.T. Hall should be closer to full strength after battling injuries for most of the season. The offensive line has never been healthy enough to truly develop chemistry this season. The bye week is not going to magically transform this unit into one of the dominant Stanford offensive lines of the past, but it should allow them to operate at closer to full strength.
Another position group to look out for is the defensive line. They were probably the biggest question mark heading into the season due to their relative youth and inexperience. David Shaw said after the Utah game that “they’re not young anymore.” After six games of experience, having a bye week to analyze film on themselves and work on technique should speed up the development of this defensive line.
I said before the season that Stanford’s defensive line was a weakness that could turn into a strength as players gain experience. Hopefully that process starts this week.
Shan Reddy (SR): Stanford is currently sitting embarrassingly low at 74th in the FBS in team rushing defense, allowing 164.3 yards per game on the ground. Nearly every time Utah’s Zach Moss was handed the football, he’d gash the Cardinal line for a first down, as the Utes ended up with well over 200 yards rushing. Herm Edwards is watching Stanford’s defensive line tape against Utah last week and celebrating because he knows that he has a weapon in his backfield even better than Moss.
Eno Benjamin is a true sophomore for the Sun Devils who’s been ripping apart Pac-12 defenses over the past few weeks. He’s ranked sixth in the FBS in rushing yards per game with 119.2, only a few spots behind top NFL draft prospects in Travis Etienne, Darrell Henderson and Jonathan Taylor, who was a legitimate Heisman contender last season. Two weeks ago, Benjamin rushed for a ridiculous 317 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon State — the most rushing yards in a game for any player in the FBS this season. Arizona State is a team built around low-risk run and play-action schemes, giving away the fewest turnovers in the entire FBS this season; you can be sure they’ll be handing the ball off to Benjamin at least 25 times this week.
For a Cardinal team playing soft against the run, it’s imperative that the defensive line steps up to slow down Benjamin, or the team risks allowing first down after first down again this week.
Bryce Love’s status is ‘questionable’ for Thursday’s game. How much better is the team on Thursday if he plays, and how much trouble are they in if he sits out?
JB: Despite Bryce Love having a below-average year, his name strikes fear in the hearts of the defenders. Despite our offensive line and their struggles, it is visibly evident how hard defenders try to make sure Love is down and tackled. Without him in the game, this fear no longer holds our offense together. Defenders will be more inclined to play to the pass, which in previous weeks was neglected due to Love constantly being a factor.
Love’s performance is less important as it is the fear and attention he is able to command from others. This force would be instrumental to a great game on Thursday, especially coming off of the rough loss against Utah.
KJ: Just as Julio said, Bryce Love is a gravity player. He pulls every eyeball on the field, on the sidelines, in the stands and in the pressbox towards himself. Announcers always say defensive coordinators “hold their breath” when Bryce touches the football. Though it’s a cliche, it’s true. His unparalleled explosiveness makes him a threat to score on every carry. Trevor Speights is a solid running back, and he actually has some advantages on Love, particularly his tendency to fall forward for extra yardage. But without Bryce Love, Stanford loses that playmaker in the backfield who keeps the defensive coordinator up at night and, more importantly, keeps him from selling out to stop the pass.
If Bryce plays, he should break off at least one long touchdown with the healthier offensive line. If he doesn’t play, Arizona State will feel much more comfortable pinning their ears back and blitzing K.J. Costello. Considering they lead the Pac-12 in sacks, that could lead to a rough night for the Stanford offense.
SR: This week is one of the few of the season when Shaw’s ground-and-pound philosophy is the way to go. Last year, Bryce Love rushed for over 300 yards against the Sun Devils, a team whose run defense hasn’t improved much going into this season. With a rushing defense nearly as bad as Stanford’s, ASU is allowing 162.3 yards per game on the ground in 2018.
The Cardinal would kill to have Love bring back any shadow of that remarkable 2017 rushing performance. But even if he doesn’t see any action this Thursday, all is not lost. Sure, Speights is no Bryce Love, but this week will be a prime opportunity for him to break out against an ASU line very weak against the run.
Despite everything that’s gone wrong this season, the Pac-12 north is wide open with Oregon upsetting Washington. Do you believe this team still has what it takes to make and win the Pac-12 championship this year?
When I think of the Cardinal, I see a team with pure potential, a team that has barely touched the most that they can do. They’ve fought their way to a 4-2 record, which includes a game against Oregon that showed resilience, persistence and a will to win. This Cardinal team knows what its capable of. They know that this is Love’s final year wearing the Cardinal Red. There are more exterior motives, each tugging on the shoulders of each player. The motivation is there, the potential even more so. This bye week was a time of reflection on what’s gone wrong, which is exactly what this team needed. Expect a revitalized Cardinal on Thursday. If Bryce Love is to play, you’ll see a team you haven’t seen all year.
KJ: Theoretically, yes, this Stanford team has every chance to win the Pac-12. They control their own destiny in the North, and outside of the Washington game, the schedule looks manageable. Plus, we have seen a version of this Stanford team that is plenty capable of winning a Pac-12 Championship. Remember that squad which started 4-0 with dominant victories over San Diego State and USC alongside an incredible comeback at Oregon?
The problem is, that’s not the only version of Stanford that we’ve seen. The team that got blown out by Notre Dame and Utah has no shot at a division title and will struggle to win more than seven regular season games. Which Stanford team we see over the second half of the season will determine whether Stanford can win the Pac-12 Championship. Every game from this point on is perfectly winnable, even that road date in Seattle against a flawed Washington team. But every game is losable too (okay, except for Oregon State), especially the next three: at Arizona State, hosting 5-1 Washington State and at the preseason’s No. 6 Washington.
Stanford is a bettor’s nightmare. They can look like a top-five team one week and then proceed to look like a 5-7 team the next week. If that roller coaster ride continues, Stanford won’t be playing for a Rose Bowl bid in Levi’s Stadium. But if they can find some consistency, this Cardinal team is still capable of a Pac-12 Championship.
SR: After facing an upstart potential playoff team in Notre Dame and a top-five defense in Utah, the toughest two-game stretch of the season is over for the Cardinal. But we have to face it: This is a down year for the Cardinal defensive and offensive lines. However, the Cardinal’s offensive skill weaponry is indisputably the conference’s best. There are simply no defenses in college football that can simultaneously lock up Bryce Love when healthy, the towering Cardinal tight end duo of Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson, and the redzone monster in red, JJ Arcega-Whiteside. If Stanford’s stars can help get this team back on its hot streak this Thursday and carry it through a win over Washington on November 2, the sky’s the limit.