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Football roundtable: Road trip continues with No. 17 UCF

Senior quarterback K.J. Costello (above) will return as the starter for Saturday's game against UCF. He left midway through the season opener on Aug. 31 and missed last week's game at USC due injury. (Photo: DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

Stanford, with its backup quarterback, went down to Southern California last week and was handily defeated by the Trojans’ own second-string signal caller.

Now unranked, Stanford will take its talents to Orlando to face No. 17 UCF, best known for completing two consecutive perfect regular seasons from 2017-18 and for arguing that it deserved the 2017 national championship after winning its bowl game that year. When the Stanford-UCF series was decided in 2014, however, the Knights were in the midst of a 9-4 campaign. The next year, they went winless, including a loss to the Cardinal at Stanford. Now, the Cardinal look to return the favor in their first-ever regular season game in Florida. The Daily’s King Jemison, Daniel Martinez-Krams and Shan Reddy talk all sides of the ball.

Another week, another opponent with questions at quarterback. Between Dillon Gabriel, Brandon Wimbush and Quadry Jones, UCF has three solid options. In Week 1, the pressure of Stanford’s defensive line stifled Northwestern’s quarterbacks. In Week 2, though, USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis had all day to pick out his receivers against the Stanford defense. Will the pass rush be able to dominate once again? If not, is Stanford’s secondary prepared to keep up with the Knights?

King Jemison (KJ): Last season, the Stanford front seven utterly dominated the hapless USC offensive line inside Stanford Stadium. This year, the Cardinal generated zero pressure and generally got pushed around by the tougher Trojans. I think that says more about USC than Stanford. The Trojans might just live up to their tremendous talent this season, and there is not much that the Cardinal can do about that. I still think Stanford has a decent defensive line and linebacking corps. That front seven should have a good day against UCF. 

The Knights are the best Group of Five program in the country, but they still do not have major conference talent. Jovan Swann, Thomas Booker, Casey Toohill, Gabe Reid, and the rest of Stanford’s pass rushers will have a bounce-back game in Florida against a weaker offensive line to shut down the UCF passing game. 

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Can the pass rush dominate? Absolutely. Will they? I honestly don’t know. As King said, Stanford has the latent advantage, but UCF’s program is built on winning in spite of that. Last week, the more talented team won. That does not always happen. Stanford’s coaches blamed a lack of execution, which between missed throws and missed reads was certainly a factor, but USC had the more talented team, and it showed. This week, Stanford has the advantage in talent, but UCF has tremendous coaching, which is why the Knights were able to upset a team like Auburn in the Peach Bowl under Scott Frost. Now with Josh Heupel at the helm, UCF continues to be in good hands.  

UCF’s offensive line returns three starters from last season with a combined 79 starts. Center Jordan Johnson has started 40 straight games, left guard Cole Schneider 15 straight, and right tackle Jake Brown 27 of the past 28. Although the Knights officially list it as an “or,” both left tackle Samual Jackson and right guard Parker Boudreaux have started the first two games this year. That means UCF will likely trot out the exact same starting five offensive linemen for the third-straight week — a far cry from Stanford’s offensive line situation — and that level of consistency is worth something.

Shan Reddy (SR): Offensive line consistency is something that the Cardinal faithful have repeatedly witnessed a lack of over the past few years. And for UCF, it will prove to be and has already proved to be a massive advantage. The Knights’ strong line play has stabilized not only their passing offense, but also their rushing attack. As DMK pointed out, their offensive line returned three starters; each of those three starters — Johnson, Schneider and Brown — were First-Team All-AAC players last season, and were part of a line last year which broke the UCF single-season team rushing yardage and touchdown records with 3448 yards and 43 touchdowns last season. It’s also worth mentioning that neither of those two graduating starters from last year’s UCF made the AAC’s first team, meaning that the three returning starters on UCF’s line were its best players last season.

What this means is that UCF’s offensive line play will continue to be strong, if not dominant. The Knights appear to be on track to dominate on the ground again this season, and racked up 338 yards rushing last weekend against Florida A&M. They did so with seven different players carrying the ball over the course of the game, meaning that game planning for a specific player will be tough for the Stanford defensive staff. If the Cardinal hopes to pull an upset on the Knights, the run defense must rise to the occasion. I’m regrettably confident that it won’t.

After Stanford’s previous game, head coach David Shaw ’94 was asked about special teams play. His response was to praise the kick return team and the kick coverage team. For the first time, special teams — between field goal kicking and punting — is a legitimate question. Should it be? Is this something that will hold Stanford back in future games? 

KJ: The field goal kicking should not be a problem long-term because Jet Toner is still the same kicker who went 14/15 last season. He is only 3/6 so far this season, but I expect that Toner will start kicking at an All-Pac-12 level soon. The punting situation is a little more concerning. True freshman Ryan Sanborn is averaging just 34.8 yards per punt on six attempts. After years watching Jake Bailey boot 60 yarders and consistently pin opponents deep (he’s now doing the same for the New England Patriots), it is strange to see Stanford losing the punting battle. But just like Toner, I believe that Sanborn can turn it around over the course of the season. He was the second-ranked punter in the 2019 recruiting class, and his struggles so far have simply been the product of adjusting to the college game. Stanford’s kicking and punting should be just fine this season, and it looks like Connor Wedington could be an elite kick returner as well. 

DMK: Although on principle it is difficult to fault special teams — if the offense executed there would not even need to be a field goal attempt — sometimes the kicker needs to come out, and I have a little less faith in Stanford’s place-kicking. It is not a lack of faith in Toner, but the whole snap, hold, kick is suspect this season. It may not be this game, or the next, but the Cardinal will need to win a close game at some point. While it is surprising Stanford has already attempted six field goals, it is even more surprising they have only come away with points half the time. Again, some of that can be attributed to the offense, without JJ Arcega-Whiteside bullying defenders on fade routes the Cardinal were bound to be less efficient in the red zone. But Stanford cannot continue to give away points, or on punts, allow opponents a better opportunity to come away with their own.

SR: Since he won the starting job in 2017, Jet Toner has been nothing short of spectacular for Stanford, and we can only hope that his three missed field goals over the past two games are an anomaly. As KJ pointed out, top-recruit Sanborn should be the Cardinal’s starter at punter for years to come, but will likely need time to adjust to the college game. In the meantime, Stanford should continue to feel comfortable relying on Toner. Though he hasn’t been perfect so far this season, he did hit a 51-yarder to open the season at the end of the first half of the Northwestern game — we can only hope that he’ll return to his record-setting ways as the year continues.

Senior kicker Jet Toner (#26 above), who converted 14 of 15 attempts last year, is 3 for 6 through the first two games of this season. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Last week, Stanford threw on fourth and one, and did not convert. Overall, Stanford has been committed to the run, and now have topped 100 rushing yards in every game. With K.J. Costello returning for Stanford, there will no longer be excuses on the offense. Should Stanford lean on the run game, or ride the arm of Costello?

KJ: I have always been a strong supporter of unleashing the Stanford passing game. Shaw and his offensive coaching staff tend to be too conservative, leaning on the run when they really do not have the personnel to do it. That being said, Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard must stay balanced in order to have an efficient offense. Cam Scarlett is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and nearly 90 yards per game through the first two contests. The fifth-year bruiser should continue to be a major part of the offense because he and the offensive line can wear down an opposing defense over the course of a game, making the job much easier for Costello and the passing attack. Costello can carve up the Knight’s secondary if he gets going, but he needs the running game to loosen up the UCF front seven first. 

DMK: The NFL has Next Gen Stats that are able to track things like average completed air yards, which can be used to tease apart what kinds of throws a quarterback is making. In college, that does not exist, so bear with me for a bit of observation. This year, Stanford is completing more shorter passes and allowing skilled receivers to break tackles and make plays. Essentially, Shaw and Pritchard are using the short passing game as a supplementary running game, a wrinkle that is not new in college football. With a receiver like Connor Wedington, who was recruited as a running back / athlete, Costello would be smart to rely on more yards after the catch. While these plays do not set up all of the options that traditional handoffs with a fullback as a lead blocker allow, they certainly function in short yardage situations, especially if Stanford can execute with efficiency.

SR: Over the past three years, UCF has repeatedly boasted one of the top offenses in all of college football, and has done so while balancing their passing and rushing games remarkably; last year they split it up 49%-51%, passing-rushing. UCF’s strong offensive line, speedy offensive pass-catchers and balanced offensive play calling will likely be an insurmountable challenge for the Cardinal defense this Saturday. 

But if the Cardinal is to stand a chance, they must control the tempo of the game. How? By doing what so many Stanford football fans revile most about their team’s offense — what Shaw loves most: power running to set up the play-action passing game. Sure, throw in some of those short passing plays — but to grab onto any hope of taking down the Knights, the Cardinal must stick to their guns to minimize the UCF offense’s time on the field. 

Fifth-year senior running back Cameron Scarlett (above) is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and nearly 90 yards per game through the first two contests. (ROB ERICSON/isiphotos.com)

Is Stanford prepared for an away game against an opponent that has lost just once since the start of 2017?

KJ: I see Stanford finishing somewhere between 7-5 and 9-3 in 2019. This road game against UCF might be the difference between landing on the higher or lower end of that range. The Knights are an excellent program. Josh Heupel picked up right where Scott Frost left off last season, cruising to an undefeated regular season and challenging LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. Before that loss to LSU, UCF was riding a remarkable 25-game win streak. But the Knights are still a Group of Five team that thrived by beating up on weaker American Athletic Conference opponents. The Cardinal have far more talent. They are used to playing tough, physical games against opponents with greater or equal talent. Stanford’s size up front and athleticism on the perimeter should allow the Cardinal to overwhelm UCF over the course of the game.

DMK: It will be raucous, humid and a little ridiculous on Saturday. Stanford will not be favored, a fact few would have expected when the games were announced in 2014. Between the coaching, trainers and player leadership, though, Stanford will be prepared. 

SR: I fear the Knights’ experience and strong line play will be too much for the Cardinal, who have now lost their most talented offensive lineman in junior Walker Little to injury, are coming off of a demoralizing in-conference beating by the Trojans and must travel across the country to play a historically strong UCF team. It will be an intriguing matchup for a Stanford team that has rarely ever played so far from home, nor against an offense so fast-paced and dynamic. I can only hope that Stanford keeps the game close. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu and Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Shan Reddy

Shan Reddy

Shan Reddy '22 is The Daily's Financial Officer, Business Team Director and a desk editor for the sports section covering Stanford football and tennis. Contact him at [email protected]

Daniel Martinez-Krams

Daniel Martinez-Krams

Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a desk editor in the sports section. He is originally from Berkeley, California, which only makes him more determined to win the Ink Bowl. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.