Stanford (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) could not compete with No. 17 UCF (3-0, 0-0 AAC) Saturday and lost 45-27 on the road. Despite the Cardinal receiving the kickoff, the Knights scored twice in the first five minutes of the game, and Stanford never recovered.
The opening minutes of the game were the worst-case scenario for Stanford. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello’s first two passes since returning from injury fell incomplete, and a three-and-out quickly gave the ball to the Knights.
Soon after UCF took the ball, the Cardinal defense had a chance to get off the field, but senior free safety JJ Parson and junior free safety Kendall Williamson whiffed on a third-down tackle, allowing Adrian Killins to pick up a first down.
The drive got worse when senior defensive end Jovan Swann was ejected for targeting on a hit of UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel after he entered a slide. Gabriel’s helmet came off on the play, similarly to Costello’s when he was knocked out against Northwestern. The hit on Costello, however, was not called for targeting. For the Stanford defensive line, the ejection meant losing one of the best Cardinal players on a day with nearly 90º heat and 90% humidity.
“There were no issues with weather, time change, or hydration,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94. “Our staff did a great job preparing these guys.”
Gabriel found wide receiver Gabriel Davis, who bested junior cornerback Paulson Adebo for 20 yards on third down. The next play, Davis went to Marlon Williams for a 28-yard touchdown toss. In just 1:53, the Knights went eight plays for 77 yards and a score.
“We gave up too many balls over our heads today,” Shaw said. “You can’t beat a good football team by giving up big plays.”
On the next drive, Stanford had an opportunity for a first down on third and one, but elected to throw. The Knights defensive back deflected the pass and Aaron Robinson returned the interception to the one-yard line. From there, running back Greg McCrae punched in the touchdown a play later. The idea of passing on third-and-short is a new wrinkle to the Stanford offense.
“We’re trying to win football games,” said Shaw, known for his emphasis on the run game. “I’m not going to play to an identity.”
After another Cardinal three-and-out, Gabriel threw 38 yards to Tre Nixon for a touchdown and a 21-0 UCF lead following the PAT.
“If you give up big plays, that puts you behind,” Shaw said. “It’s too difficult of a place for us to be in, and even then we had a couple of opportunities.”
On the fourth drive, Stanford’s offense came to life. Freshman running back Austin Jones took the snap out of the wildcat and ran for 15 yards and a first down. Three plays later, Jones was sprung free with the help of a pancake block by Costello on defensive back Richie Grant for a 35-yard touchdown. Jones racked up three carries for 55 yards on the first scoring drive of his Cardinal career.
“Like all of the great backs we’ve had here we’re going to continue to give him a little at a time,” Shaw said. “He knows what to do, and he does it at full speed. So Stanford fans, I’d get used to that kid’s name.”
Two other freshmen made a notable impact on the Cardinal offense, left tackle Walter Rouse and right tackle Branson Bragg. Defensively, when sophomore inside linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar and fifth-year inside linebacker Ryan Beecher missed time, freshman Tristan Sinclair, who was not even listed on the depth chart, stepped in at the position. Fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill also missed a few possessions, but still led Stanford with eight tackles. Freshman cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly also saw significant snaps spelling senior Obi Eboh.
“God bless these freshman,” Shaw said. “This is the most freshman we’ve ever played in a game, I think. These guys haven’t blinked.”
UCF wasted no time for a 1:16 response. Taking advantage of Adebo’s aggressiveness, Davis burned the All-American on a double move for 38 yards and a touchdown. At this point, the Stanford defense had allowed a touchdown on 10 of its last 12 drives dating back to the loss to USC.
After the first 15 minutes of gameplay UCF held a 28-7 lead. With a third-and-long on the first play of the second quarter, the Stanford defense got off the field for the first time.
Bragg, who was making his first career start in place of junior right tackle Foster Sarell, went down with an injury. In response, Hattis moved to right tackle and freshman Barrett Miller went in at right guard.
“Last year, we didn’t have the depth, this year we have depth it’s just freshmen,” Shaw said. “Give [offensive line] coach [Kevin] Carberry a lot of credit training and preparing these guys because we knew there was a chance they’d play because they’re our backups. They went out there and didn’t play like backups, they played like starters.”
Between Gabriel and Killins, UCF drove quickly down the field to the Stanford 23-yard line. Gabriel hit Williams for 18 yards, and a replay review overturned a targeting call on junior defensive end Ryan Johnson. Stanford staged a goal-line stand that included a cameo from Brandon Wimbush, and forced the Knights to take three points on a field goal.
After taking over the ball again, UCF faced a first-and-18 due to a holding penalty. The Knights opted to run, but McCrae broke through into the open field and would have scored if not for the speed of Williamson. Running back Otis Anderson tallied the score for UCF shortly afterward on a one-yard run. McCrae totaled 109 yards on 11 carries to lead all backs, though three more Knights rushed for over 30 yards.
At halftime, UCF led 38-7 and had outgained Stanford 413-165. The Cardinal held a lead in time-of-possession, and were competitive on the ground with 104 yards, including fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett’s 43 on 4.8 yards per carry. Returning from injury, Costello did not look himself and at halftime had completed just 9-22 for 61 yards and an interception. UCF racked up 9.6 yards per play a week after USC’s 8.1. The points were the most Stanford has allowed in a first half since surrendering 44 to the 2005 USC team.
Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s halftime adjustments resulted in a three-and-out for UCF on its first two drives of the second half. The Cardinal defense limited the Knights to 132 second-half yards and just seven points.
Three Stanford running backs caught passes on the first possession of the half, including freshman running back Nathaniel Peat. Scarlett picked up a short fourth-down conversion, but faced a third-and-12 soon after. Shaw drew up the same wildcat play for Jones for the fourth time, but it went for a three yard loss, and senior kicker Jet Toner came out and nailed a 36-yard field goal.
“We wanted to use that wildcat for this game,” Shaw said.
The Cardinal stuffed the Knights on a fourth-down rush by Anderson and took over on offense at their own 25-yard line. With the stop, Stanford held UCF scoreless and allowed just 51 yards in the third quarter.
Stanford bled out the clock with a 13-play 75-yard drive that lasted 5:20. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Costello looked toward sophomore Michael Wilson, who climbed the ladder to reach over his defender for an impressive catch for a 24-yard score. The touchdown was the first of the year for the Cardinal in the second half of a game.
The Knights got back on the board with another Gabriel toss, which found wide-open tight end Jake Hescock after Stanford bit on a fake handoff. Gabriel finished 22-30 for 347 yards and four touchdowns in just his second start with the UCF program.
“They run the ball and take shots, and they’re as good as anyone in the country at doing those two things,” Shaw said.
Costello completed six consecutive passes, including two to junior Osiris St. Brown for a combined 37 yards, doubling Brown’s season-receptions total. The next three passes fell incomplete, and Toner was brought out for another field goal. Costello’s completion rate was held below 50% (21-44) for just the second time in a regular season game.
“At times I thought [Costello] was really good, and at times we didn’t connect,” Shaw said. “Couple balls were a little bit high today, I know he had guys in his face.”
Junior quarterback Davis Mills took the remainder of the snaps for the Cardinal with the game out of reach.
The Knights put the ball on the ground, and freshman safety Jonathan McGill kicked the ball to himself for a scoop-and-score that took the game to its final score: 45-27.
UCF took advantage of one of its two games scheduled against Power Five opponents this season to make a statement against the Cardinal. The Knights totaled 545 yards on an incomprehensible 7.4 yards per play.
Stanford will host No. 15 Oregon next Saturday at 4 p.m. PT.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.