The Stanford Cardinal football team (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) has fallen out of the AP College Football Top 25 once again, after yet another heart-wrenching loss to Washington State. The good news? The Cougars look like the best team in the Pac-12 and might be heading to the Rose Bowl. The team suffered a ‘quality loss.’ The bad news? Any loss is still a loss. The Cardinal are now effectively eliminated from winning the Pac-12, and to make matters worse, they take on the Washington Huskies on the road this weekend. The Huskies aren’t looking too hot either though, getting upset by Cal just last weekend. What was once billed in the preseason as a marquee matchup is now just a Saturday evening game between two unranked teams. The Stanford Daily’s Andrew Tan, Shan Reddy and Gregory Block take a look at Stanford’s offensive identity, the defensive game plan against Jake Browning and the outlook for the rest of the Cardinal’s season.
After Saturday’s loss to Wazzu, David Shaw maintained that the pass-first offense that the team used against the Cougars was a year in planning, and a one-time strategy. Do you think the team actually reverts to their smash-mouth identity against Washington, or will they continue to air the ball out? In your opinion, what would result in the most success?
Andrew Tan (AT): Coach David Shaw is about as creative as a Powerpoint template so I fully expect Stanford to revert to its run-first tendency against a Washington team against whom they must win the turnover battle. Regardless of running back Bryce Love’s health, Shaw will stick to the ground game with a steady helping of carries for Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights. Excluding last week’s performance against the Cougars, the Cardinal offense has generally taken a more conservative ball-control approach this season, which has been effective enough against middling opponents such as UC Davis and San Diego State. Even though this is the road they probably will follow, I believe that this should not be the strategy against the Huskies.
We have seen how potent the Stanford passing attack can be when quarterback K.J. Costello distributes the ball to all his targets. The Cardinal have a reliable red zone target in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside who has already hauled in 11 touchdowns, an effective slot receiver in Trenton Irwin, and a big-bodied downfield threat in tight end Kaden Smith. Yet the coaching staff has really only featured the passing game in contests that were obvious shootouts or when they have fallen into large deficits. The problem lies in Shaw’s unwillingness to take big risks, which has kept Stanford good for many years, but has rarely led the Cardinal to greatness.
Stanford has a real opportunity to punch the Huskies in the mouth early if they maintain their pass-first approach from last week and use an explosive air attack to open up the run. Unfortunately, unless Shaw discovers his inner-John McClane this week in the spirit of Halloween– yippee ki-yay, call some badass plays– the Cardinal offense will instead take its more usual conservative approach.
Shan Reddy (SR): Just about every offensive drive of the first half of last Saturday’s game against Washington State had me in awe. Not since the years of Andrew Luck–may we pray for his soul condemned to Indianapolis– have we seen Stanford implement a pass-first offense, relying primarily on its talented quarterback. K.J. Costello showed us that he has what it takes to carry the offense, with or without Bryce Love taking carries to the house every other play out of the backfield.
We can only hope that the game was enough for Shaw and the offensive staff to have faith in Costello and the deep Cardinal receiving corps. The team went into last week’s game knowing full well that they were going to have to keep up with a high-flying offense led by Wazzu quarterback Gardner Minshew, and they entered the locker room at halftime on Saturday having achieved that unlikely goal. This week, the Cardinal takes on the best defensive unit it has faced since the embarrassment against Utah. However, unlike Utah’s defense, Washington’s is versatile, and chock-full of legitimate potential NFL starters. They boast the best passing defense Stanford has faced yet this season–twelfth overall in the FBS–and a top 30 run defense.
Washington’s cornerbacks Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy are considered potential first round picks in next April’s NFL draft, and will be looking to shut down the Cardinal’s primary deep receiving threat in JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Murphy is the top graded cover corner in the Pac-12 per Pro Football Focus (PFF), and the second highest graded corner in the entire FBS with a pass coverage grade of 88.9. The Huskies’ secondary plays behind one of the top interior defensive lines in college football, headlined by defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Greg Gaines. Gaines absolutely pummeled the Cal interior offensive line last week, racking up a whopping 10 tackles along with a sack, grading out at an 88.3 per PFF.
The strength of Stanford’s interior offensive line is entirely dependent on star junior guard Nate Herbig, who sat out last Saturday with an undisclosed injury. If Shaw and the offensive staff can game-plan for Washington as they did Wazzu last week, zeroing in on shutting down the key defensive players on that Huskies defense, the Cardinal should be able to get it done.
Gregory Block (GB): Stanford’s sudden transformation to an Air Raid offense stole some headlines, but it obviously didn’t pay off in terms of results. That being said, K.J. Costello and the Cardinal passing attack looked solid in a losing effort. Costello was 34 for 43 for 323 yards and four touchdowns. It’s hard for me to believe that Shaw would ignore those numbers and revert back to a rush-first offense that just hasn’t seen the same success as last year. In fact, it was interesting to see how much more space Bryce Love had rushing the ball when defenses had to prepare more for the deep ball. Love only rushed the ball six times last week, but he had 71 yards on the ground.
The Huskies have a solid rush defense, so I would hope Shaw is smart enough to air the ball out at the start, open up the field and then feed Bryce Love later in the game. Then again, Shaw isn’t exactly a mad scientist on the sidelines, so don’t be surprised if Stanford reverts back to the basics.
Washington was upset last week by a stout Berkeley defense that held the Huskies to 10 points and scored a touchdown. Turnovers were key in the dismantling of the UW offense. Can Stanford’s defense pull off the same feat this week? How will they get it done?
AT: It’s hard to believe that just two years ago Jake Browning was a true Heisman candidate. The Washington quarterback has thrown for more than 300 yards all of one time this year and more than one touchdown only twice. Maybe those 2016 expectations were unfair to Browning or maybe he has just regressed–you could say he’s browning– but either way you look at it, the Huskies’ passing game has been middle-of-the-pack. Browning has also gone four straight weeks with an interception, so there are definitely turnovers to be had.
Washington isn’t going to light up the Stanford defense through the air, so Stanford should commit to slowing down a powerful running attack that showcases several capable backs including Salvon Ahmed, Myles Gaskin and Kamari Pleasant. Try to rip the ball away from the Huskie ball carriers and stifle the run to force Browning to throw the ball more and eventually he will confuse purple and red and drop one into the hands of a Stanford defender. Stick to this game-plan and the Cardinal will have a good shot at forcing multiple turnovers. Hey, anything Cal can do, Stanford can do better, right?
SR: It goes without saying that the Cardinal defense did not exactly step up last week against Wazzu. However, like Andrew said, Jake Browning and the Huskies’ passing attack is not nearly as high-powered as that of Gardner Minshew and the Cougars. Washington lost their top receiver Dante Pettis to the NFL draft last year, and Browning has played mediocre football at best this season, throwing for a meager 12 touchdowns thus far to go along with eight interceptions. However, the Huskies’ ground game should be overlooked. Washington’s star running back Myles Gaskin has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury but was very close to playing last week against Cal–should he play, Stanford will certainly have to look towards stacking the box to shut down the run.
GB: As Greg and Andrew mentioned, Washington’s passing attack has not exactly lived up to its expectations. That being said, Stanford’s pass defense was embarrassed by Gardner Minshew last week. Minshew completed his first 19 passes in the second half and finished with 438 yards passing and three touchdowns on fifty pass attempts! The Cardinal pass defense was so porous that Jake Browning has to be licking his lips, even as he comes off an embarrassing performance in a loss to Cal. The Washington quarterback is still an elite player and the Huskies offense has a lot of talented pieces. I’m expecting Browning to have a big bounce back game on Saturday, so the Cardinal defense better figure things out quick.
With Stanford’s Pac-12 title hopes all but shattered at this point, what’s the best way that this disappointing season can finish for the Cardinal? Alternatively, what’s the worst possible way it can finish?
AT: I shudder to consider the possibility of losing to two awful teams in UCLA and Oregon State in the next four games. I don’t consider this a distinct possibility, but I guess that would be rock bottom. Just for context, students at UCLA understand how abysmal their football team is and caption their game-day instagram photos “ucLa.”
At this point, there is little the Cardinal can do to salvage their season in my eyes with such high expectations coming into the year. I guess the final nail in this rickety coffin would be losing the Big Game at Cal. Losing to both Washington and Cal would be worse, rankings-wise, than losing to Cal alone, but somehow it would seem more painful, and perhaps fitting, for the Cardinal to get our hopes up one more time before letting us down again. Such has been the trend for the entire season and I do not have much faith that Stanford will do anything to buck this trend as the season wanes.
If Stanford wins out, they could still be placed in a decent bowl game, but this will do little to console wide-eyed fans, who at the beginning of the season had legitimate CFP aspirations. Bottom line: just don’t lose the Big Game.
SR: Let’s be honest with ourselves here. Stanford is going to have a tough game against Washington, and if the game against Wazzu–in which the Cardinal exceeded expectations, frankly–is any indication, the Huskies are more likely than not to take the win at home this Saturday. However, if Stanford can’t win out the last three games of the season after this week with a schedule ending the season with Oregon State, Cal and UCLA, then we have a real problem on our hands.
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, the Cardinal will have a tough game this Saturday and will win out against some truly horrendous Pac-12 football teams over the next month. What Cardinal fans can look forward to, though, is the prospect of Stanford’s stars continuing their strong play with the NFL draft looming. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is considered Stanford’s top prospect, and could be picked on the first day of the draft come April. If Bryce Love can get back to his old form, he could too be a first-rounder; worst case scenario, he’ll be a rotational back picked on the second day.
No matter what happens over the course of the next few weeks, Stanford fans can rest assured that Cardinal players will continue to make headlines in the NFL.
GB: The best way this season could end is if the Cardinal win out, Washington State forgets how to pass the ball and some other Pac-12 North teams cause some chaos, leading to a miraculous run to a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl victory. But it’s Halloween, so let’s focus on the spookiest scenario.
For obvious reasons, the worst possible way this season could end is with a loss at Cal before Thanksgiving. The Bears are much improved this year and even if neither team is competing for a Pac-12 title, the importance of the rivalry game need not be restated. Even if Stanford beats Washington in Seattle this week, it would all be for nothing if they can’t find a way to win their ninth straight Big Game.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu, Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu, and Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.