By Shan Reddy
Though its year ended with a 14-13 win over Pittsburgh in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, the 2018-2019 Stanford football team certainly ended its regular season feeling that more could have been accomplished. With a roster featuring a returning Heisman finalist in senior Bryce Love, a monstrous All-Pac-12 selection in JJ Arcega-Whiteside and a strong defensive complement that only graduated a handful of players from the 2017-2018 season, expectations were high for head coach David Shaw’s Cardinal.
The team narrowly improved upon last season’s 9-5 record with a 9-4 year ending with a four-game winning streak that included the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
The year started off the year hot, dominating San Diego State (SDSU) in the season opener 31-10. The game was also the coming-out party for senior wideout Arcega-Whiteside, who absolutely dominated the Aztec secondary with 226 receiving yards and three touchdowns — the effort was undoubtedly one of the best receiving performances in Stanford history.
The 2017-2018 season was the year of Love; the elusive back’s historic 2118-yard season will go down in the record books as one of the best single-season rushing campaigns in program history. Meanwhile, the Cardinal passing attack was an afterthought; then sophomore quarterback KJ Costello passed for only 1573 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games.
The opener against SDSU, however, saw a stunted Love, a shadow of his former self. He rushed for only 38 yards on 18 carries, a 1.6 yards-per-carry average that paled in comparison to his 8.1 the year before. The game was the first of many signs over the course that as defenses steadied themselves to stuff the box to stop Love, the Cardinal would need to adjust its offensive approach.
Game two against No. 17 USC showed off Stanford’s stout secondary, which forced six punts, one fumble, two interceptions and only one three-point score on the Trojans’ 11 completed offensive drives. Love flashed, eclipsing 100 yards for the final time in his Stanford career.
The Cardinal rolled over UC Davis 30-10 before traveling to what was perhaps the Cardinal’s most iconic game of the year, played in Eugene, Oregon. The No. 20 Oregon Ducks, a perennial Pac-12 rival of the Cardinal, featured a junior quarterback in Justin Herbert who, at the time, was projected to be a high-first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. (He ultimately decided to stay in school, and will play out the 2019-2020 senior season with Oregon.)
The Ducks came out swinging, scoring on every offensive drive in the first half. Down 24-7, the Costello-led Cardinal began a comeback for the ages. Halfway through the third quarter, senior linebacker Joey Alfieri — the two-time Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention recently signed as an undrafted free agent with the Eagles — recovered a fumble for 80 yards, scoring the team’s second touchdown of the day. After forcing a three-and-out on Oregon’s next offensive drive, the Cardinal pitched a ‘three-and-score’ on their next drive, flying 65 yards down the field for a touchdown in only three offensive plays.
The game ultimately went into overtime — Stanford scored on their first possession after the regulation clock had hit zero, taking home a hard-earned in-conference 38-31 victory against a ranked opponent with a future-pro quarterback.
Ranked No. 7 in the nation on the AP poll after the nailbiter win, the stakes couldn’t have been higher as Stanford traveled to Notre Dame to take on a team that would ultimately rank fourth in the nation by the end of the season. The Cardinal could not keep up with the high-flying Irish offense and fell 17-38, shortly before being steamrolled by the rush-heavy Utah offense 21-40 the very next weekend.
After a bounceback 20-13 win over Arizona State, the team’s fate continued its downward spiral on two more Saturdays as both Washington and Washington State added Stanford to their win columns.
Over the next two games, Stanford had a chance to shine against floundering Pac-12 opponents in Oregon State and UCLA. The Cardinal combined for a whopping 97 points over those two games alone. After a season finale win in the Big Game, the stage was set for the college football playoff, and the Cardinal would once again certainly not have a part in it.
The Cardinal offseason, however, was a fruitful one. Five Stanford players were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, including former superstar Love — the North Carolina native was selected in the fourth round by the Washington Redskins — and breakout star Arcega-Whiteside, who finished off his career with a stellar senior season in which he tied a 41-year-old school record for touchdowns in a single season with 14. The international relations major was the first Cardinal selected by the Philadelphia Eagles since Ed Reynolds went in the fifth round of the draft back in 2014.
Moving forward, the Cardinal quarterback returns with more experience under his belt than ever. The 6-foot-5 political science major was head-and-shoulders above the other quarterbacks in the conference this season, ranking first in Pro Football Focus grading among quarterbacks with an 85.1 grade — second-ranked was Herbert, who earned a 76.6 grade. The team also returns starting left tackle Walker Little, whose name has already been thrown around by analysts as a potential first-round NFL draft pick come next April. Second-Team All-American Paulson Adebo also returns for his junior season after a breakout year at the cornerback position in which he led all of college football in passes defensed, a key statistic for defensive secondary players.
Though the incoming freshman class lacks the headliners it’s had in the past, Stanford’s 2019 football commits include eight four-star high school recruits from across the country — 247 Sports ranks the class fourth-best in the Pac-12, and No. 21 in the nation.
Though the season left much to be desired, Stanford made its presence known as as NFL pipeline and a developing team to be reckoned with on the national scale. Though Love may be gone, the Stanford football team’s fire — and its characteristic intellectual brutality — remains stronger than ever.
Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.