Stanford (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) will travel across the country to take on No. 17 UCF (2-0, 0-0 AAC) and complete the home-and-home series that began in 2015. The last, and only, time these two sides met the Cardinal rolled the Knights, who would not win a game that year.
The next season, the Knights hired Scott Frost, who spent two years on the Farm as a teammate of current Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94. After winning six games in his first season, UCF went undefeated under Frost the next year, claiming a national championship after a Peach Bowl win over then-No. 7 Auburn. Frost departed for his alma mater, Nebraska, and now Josh Heupel serves as the head coach of the Knights team awaiting Stanford in Orlando.
“They are night and day from the team we played four years ago, a complete turn over,” Shaw said. “They’re bigger, faster, longer and they make a lot of plays.”
The Knights started the Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush in the opener, but freshman Dillon Gabriel earned the starting job for week two. Neither quarterback has thrown an interception, but both carry a completion percentage hovering around 50%. Wimbush completed 12-of-23 for two touchdowns against Florida A&M, but was bested by Gabriel’s 9-of-13 for three touchdowns. Against FAU, Gabriel was 7-of-19 for two scores, but added another pair on the ground.
“Whoever is playing quarterback is going to go fast,” Shaw said. “They throw it deep, they throw it short, and they run it down your throat. We have to prepare more for the scheme than who is playing quarterback.”
The Knights defense forced 13 punts in its week one shutout, and until the streak was snapped last week, had recorded a turnover in a nation-leading 32 straight games. The 28 turnovers forced in 2018 ranked sixth in the nation. Although the defensive line was a question heading into the season, the Knights have recorded 14.0 tackles for loss per game, the most in the sport.
“They are fast, confident, aggressive and do a lot on the defensive side,” Shaw said. “They do it full speed, which shows faith in what they’re doing. On offense, they are also fast. This will be the quickest up-tempo team we’ve played in years.”
UCF has scored at least 30 in 28 consecutive games, the longest streak in the AP Poll era (since 1936). So far, the Knights rank fifth in total offense (634.0 YPG) and seventh in scoring offense (55.0 PPG). Adrian Killins Jr. and former walk on Greg McRae lead the rushing committee that has picked up where it left off in its 2018 program-setting year.
Stanford will welcome back senior starting quarterback K.J. Costello, who was sidelined last week with an injury. Costello made the trip to Southern California and was tuned in to the play calls during the game.
“My eyes were looking at the exact right things in terms of what Davis was seeing, maybe what he wasn’t seeing,” Costello said. “It was a cool vantage point in terms of seeing the game from the sideline.”
The offensive line, however, will be without junior left tackle Walker Little, who will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery, junior right tackle Foster Sarell and senior interior lineman Dylan Powell. Freshman Walter Rouse stepped in last week for Little at left tackle, but with Sarell and Powell also unavailable, it gets complicated.
Senior Henry Hattis, who started the first two games at right guard, is also listed on the depth chart at right tackle. As Shaw and offensive line coach Kevin Carberry sort through the uncertainty, freshmen Branson Bragg and Barrett Miller have a chance for playing time. The injuries and inexperience make the task more difficult for a group that has also been hit with a number of holding penalties in the first two weeks.
Between the eight Cardinal listed on the offensive line depth chart, there are 25 career starts. In comparison, the same five linemen have started the first two games for UCF, and have combined for 85 career starts.
Stanford will also be without its pair of sophomore inside linebackers. Jacob Mangum-Farrar will be evaluated next week, and Ricky Miezan will miss extended time according to Shaw. With almost no depth remaining at the position, Stanford will turn to fifth-year Ryan Beecher to rotate in behind senior starters Curtis Robinson and Andrew Pryts.
After four years backing up Heisman contenders, fifth-year Cameron Scarlett has rushed 39 times for 179 yards and a touchdown in his first year as the lead back. Last year, with Bryce Love ’18 battling injuries, Scarlett led the team with eight rushing touchdowns.
“It’s tough when you look at the line in front of you,” Shaw said. “It’s not like he walked in and said. ‘I’m going to beat Bryce Love out.’ That just wasn’t going to happen.”
In the same way that Scarlett spelled Love, Shaw plans to keep Scarlett fresh with a rotation of senior Dorian Maddox, as well as a pair of talented freshman running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat.
“Cam and Dorian have done really well, but we’ll continue to spice those young guys in there, let them get some experience,” Shaw said. “We saw freshman come in and play corner, linebacker, special teams.”
Stanford has also given junior wide receiver Connor Wedington, recruited as a running back, a touch from the backfield. Wedington currently leads the team in both receptions (12) and receiving yards (136), and has returned four kickoffs for 128 yards, including a long of 60.
“That explosive, exciting, tackle-breaker return man, these two games we’re starting to see it,” Shaw said. “He has always known that it’s in there, and we’ve always known that it’s there and it’s great to see it manifest itself.”
Uniformly, Stanford diagnosed last week’s struggles as attributable to execution. On the offensive side, that manifested in drives that failed to end in points.
“We have to raise our level of execution in all three three of our phases,” Shaw said. “We lost the game on execution and playmaking last week. We have to raise that level for our entire football team to give ourselves a chance to win against a really good football team that doesn’t give games away.”
“I’m excited about where our offense is headed,” Parkinson said. “We were able to get down in the red zone, even plus forty, a lot of times and not finish, but we have that potential.”
For Parkinson and the other Cardinal tight ends, the power look, including sets with three tight ends, will not only help the decimated line, but could also show the Knights a new wrinkle.
“We’re able to alleviate some pressure from the line, but more so we’re able to confuse the defense,” Parkinson said. “They’re not used to seeing three tight ends on the field, and it adds some different looks, especially when we’re able to go out and run some routes.
Stanford’s defense was also exposed last week, especially a defensive line that was unable to pressure USC’s freshman quarterback, recording a lone sack.
Between temperatures north of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity in the range of 70%, and a predicted thunderstorm, the weather will also play a factor on Saturday.
“We’ll have to be prepared to play multiple players,” Shaw said. “To think that we’re going to go out there in that kind of climate and that kind of humidity and play just the starters is folly.”
“We’re deep enough to do that,” Shaw added.
In terms of conditioning, the team received an email on Sunday to drink a lot of water and sleep a lot.
Traveling across the country for the first regular season game in Florida offers Stanford a rare opportunity to both visit Florida, Georgia, and other Southeast high school recruits in-season and check in with their counselors in regards to grades. Furthermore, with East Coast media apparently unaware of recently-installed Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew, who finished second in the nation with 4,779 passing yards with Washington State last year, Stanford would do well to show off for infrequent viewers.
Stanford will enter its Saturday meeting with UCF for a 12:30 p.m. PT kickoff.
“Driving up to the plane, hopping on the plane almost feels like a business trip,” Parkinson said. “They’re always fun experiences, and they’re especially fun when you come away with a win.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.