Stanford football (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) enters this Thursday’s matchup with Arizona State (3-3, 1-2) unranked for the first time this year thanks to two straight losses. The season has taken a sharp turn after such a promising 4-0 start that raised expectations to Andrew Luck-era levels. The exhilarating comeback victory against Oregon and Top 10 ranking feels like a different season at this point, and yet the Cardinal still control their own destiny in the Pac-12 North. With a Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl appearance still on the table, Stanford can turn 2018 into a success. The sky is not falling. But it might be if the Cardinal lose to Arizona State Thursday night.
Stanford hasn’t lost three straight games since 2008 in Jim Harbaugh’s second season. Their Pac-12 Championship hopes would be on life support with a loss. It’s only Week 8, but this is very much a must-win game for the Cardinal. Here’s three keys to an all-important Stanford victory on Thursday night.
1) Do Something — Anything — In the Run Game
The Cardinal run game hasn’t just been bad by Stanford’s standards. It’s been bad by anyone’s standards. Stanford is averaging an abysmal 85.7 yards per game on the ground. That’s 11th in the Pac-12 (ahead of only Washington State, who literally never runs the ball) and 126th out of 130 FBS teams. Despite all the preseason hype over Bryce Love’s Heisman campaign, the running game has been the unquestionable weakness of this Stanford team so far.
The good news is, the Cardinal have still managed to move the ball (a little bit, they’re still 11th in the Pac-12 and 112th nationally in total offense) thanks to an encouraging effort from KJ Costello and the passing game. Costello is averaging 268.5 yards per game through the air, putting him at 3rd in the Pac-12. With an incredibly talented group of receivers and tight ends, the passing game is capable of carrying the load. But they need a little help.
Arizona State is tied for first in the Pac-12 with three sacks per game. Their front seven is aggressive and physical, highlighted by talented freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson who, besides being a wizard, also leads the team in sacks. The Sun Devils are all too eager to blitz Costello every time he drops back, and they will do that if Stanford can’t generate anything in the run game. The Cardinal offensive line has given up nine sacks in its last two games. Stanford must find a way to run the ball or else Costello will be a sitting duck and the Cardinal offense will go nowhere.
2) Contain N’Keal Harry
N’Keal Harry came into the season as the scariest wide receiver in the Pac-12 after leading the conference in receiving a year ago. JJ Arcega-Whiteside and his eight rebounding receiving touchdowns might have taken that title from him, but Harry is still a potential top 10 NFL draft pick with a unique blend of speed and size. And Stanford has really struggled to cover their opponent’s No. 1 receiving target. Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell had 239 yards against the Cardinal, Notre Dame’s Myles Boykin had 144, and UC Davis’s Keelan Doss had 108.
None of those guys is anywhere close to Harry’s talent level. Harry hasn’t had the biggest season, as he’s averaging 80.2 yards per game to go along with five touchdowns. But it feels like he’s due for a breakout, and the Cardinal are a prime candidate to give up that big game. Mitchell and Boykin each had their best game of the season against the Cardinal. So did Utah’s Samson Nacua and USC’s Tyler Vaughns. N’Keal Harry could be the next wide receiver to explode against Stanford.
This inability to cover their opponent’s top wide receiver is probably not the fault of Stanford’s secondary. Paulson Adebo and Alijah Holder have been solid in coverage at cornerback (Adebo is third in the country with 2.0 passes defended per game), and despite Malik Antoine and Frank Buncom’s tackling struggles, they’ve been good against the pass. The problem has more to do with Stanford’s inability to generate a consistent pass rush. The Cardinal have managed to collect 15 sacks, but on a down-to-down basis, quarterbacks have way too much time to throw on Stanford’s secondary. Oregon’s Justin Herbert went 25 of 27 in regulation against the Cardinal. Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Utah’s Tyler Huntley each completed over 70 percent of their passes against Stanford as well. Quarterbacks have been crazy efficient and wide receivers have been crazy productive against the Cardinal. If Manny Wilkins and N’Keal Harry can have a similarly big game, it’ll be another long day for the Stanford defense.
3) Win the Turnover Battle
Under David Shaw, Stanford has been known for its discipline. The Cardinal don’t turn the ball over, and they don’t beat themselves with penalties. Stanford led the Pac-12 in Turnover Margin last year, and they lead the Pac-12 in penalty yardage per game this year. But against Utah, the Cardinal did beat themselves with turnovers. They committed four in total, including two costly interceptions by Costello. Utah played well, but Stanford handed them that game. Arizona State is all too happy to let the Cardinal throw away another win because they never beat themselves. The Sun Devils have committed just two turnovers all season, the fewest in college football. They lead the Pac-12 with a +5 turnover margin. New head coach Herm Edwards has Arizona State playing Shaw-esque disciplined football. Arizona State doesn’t have the talent to just outplay Stanford. They need some help from the Cardinal. If Stanford gives them that help, Arizona State can easily win this game. But on the flip side, if the Cardinal can force Arizona State to make the mistakes, then Stanford should be able to cruise to a victory.
Although it isn’t getting the same hype as the Oregon or Notre Dame matchups, Stanford’s game against Arizona State is perhaps the most important of the season so far. The Cardinal are at a proverbial crossroads. With a win, Stanford is back on track for a potential Pac-12 Championship. With a loss, the season is pretty much over in mid-October. Which Stanford team will we see? The squad that dominated San Diego State, USC and Oregon in the second half? Or the team that fell behind 24-7 to Oregon and just got blown out by Notre Dame and Utah? The answer will decide Stanford’s season.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu