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Football roundtable: Duck syndrome

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Unranked Stanford (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) lost to No. 15 UCF last week by a 45-27 margin that makes the game seem closer than it really was. Now, Stanford returns home for the first game of the academic year, a tussle with No. 16 Oregon (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12). That is to say, the schedule is not going to get any easier for the Cardinal. Oregon possesses a top-25 total offense, passing offense, scoring offense, total defense and scoring defense. After a disappointing — for both the Ducks and the conference — 27-21 loss to Auburn in the season opener, Oregon has been utterly dominant in two games against admittedly inferior opponents in Nevada and Montana. On the other hand, Stanford has suffered a pair of gruesome defeats since a season-opening victory. The Daily’s Sally Egan, King Jemison and Shan Reddy talk quarterbacks, injuries and identity.

This Week Four matchup will feature two of the best quarterbacks in the country. Oregon’s Justin Herbert will go toe-to-toe with K.J. Costello, who returned last week after missing Week 2 with an injury. Going into the season, Costello said he carries a chip on his shoulder knowing that Herbert garners more national attention. Is Herbert really the superior quarterback? Or, this may or may not be a separate question: Who performs better on Saturday?

Sally Egan (SE): I think it depends on which version of Costello shows up on Saturday. He was off to a great start against Northwestern in the season opener before being knocked out of the game. He came back last week and played arguably the worst game of his career against a tough, ranked UCF defense, posting only a 35.7 QBR while completing less than half of his passes and averaging less than 5 yards per attempt. Herbert, meanwhile, played solid football in his lone game against a ranked team, Auburn, completing over 75% of his passes, though he did get sacked three times. While the stats for this year indicate Herbert is clearly the better quarterback, Costello has played some excellent football in his time as the starter. In last year’s thrilling matchup, Costello played a near perfect game when it mattered most, posting a 98.5 QBR while leading a legendary fourth-quarter comeback. Herbert played well, too, but Costello played better. If that version of Costello can show up in this game, he’ll be hard to beat, but for now, I have to go with Herbert as the superior quarterback.

King Jemison (KJ): I agree with Sally that Herbert has been far superior to Costello so far this season. That was not the case last year, however. In 2018, Costello was the highest-rated QB in the Pac-12, ranking 17th overall amongst FBS quarterbacks. Herbert was 40th on the same list. Costello completed over 65% of his passes last season, good for Top 25 nationally, while Herbert ranked 73rd nationally at just 59%. Herbert has totally flipped the script on his Pac-12 North counterpart in 2019. The possible number-one-overall draft pick is completing over 73% of his passes and averaging nearly 290 yards per game through the first three contests to go along with 11 touchdowns. Costello, meanwhile, is completing just 58% of his passes and has only two touchdowns thus far. Those stats are mired by his injury, but the numbers tell the story. Herbert has upped his game from last year, while Costello is still figuring it out. I expect that both quarterbacks will get back to their usual selves over the course of the season, and Costello may well finish the season as the better quarterback. At the moment, though, Herbert is finally realizing his incredible potential, and that is a scary thing for Stanford fans.

Shan Reddy (SR): The argument could certainly be made that Costello was the superior quarterback last season; after all, Costello outplayed Herbert when the two faced off last season. This season, however, the scene is entirely different. Costello’s top target in JJ Arcega-Whiteside ’19 is gone, now catching passes from Carson Wentz in the NFL. Stanford’s supplementary running game is nonexistent, with former superstar Bryce Love ’19 also in the NFL. This season’s Cardinal offensive line is one of the worst we’ve seen in years; future NFL prospect left tackle Walker Little is out for the season with injury, and most of last year’s starters graduated during the offseason. We may see three true freshmen start on the Cardinal offensive line this Saturday. 

Compare those vast retrogressions to the impressive steps forward that the Oregon offense has taken over the last year. Oregon boasts an offensive line that has proven to be one of the best — if not the best — pass-protecting lines in all of college football. All five of last year’s starters stayed on this year and have combined for 153 starts in their careers; four of them earned All-Pac-12 honors last season. 

At the end of the day, if Costello can’t stay upright, he’ll have no chance of keeping pace with a vastly more talented Oregon offense. 

Last season, quarterback K.J. Costello (above) threw three touchdowns for 327 yards in a 38-31 victory against the Ducks. (Photo: BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Without a doubt, injuries have played a role in the season so far. Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94 has already played 12 true freshmen in this young season, nine Cardinal have made their first career start, and there has been a different starting offensive line in each game — an unfortunate streak that will continue on Saturday. To what extent can Stanford’s maligned situation be blamed on injuries? 

SE: The injuries sustained have been tough, especially to the offensive line, as it’s difficult for an offense to succeed in most situations if the quarterback can’t receive protection. However, injuries are a major part of football, and it’s not like Stanford’s backups have never played football before. Shaw is consistently able to recruit the players he wants, and he does so for situations like this, where key starters go down. Therefore, I don’t buy the argument that injuries can be blamed for most of this season’s disappointing start. College football teams have nearly 100 players for a reason. The Cardinal also knew, though, coming into the season that they had arguably one of the most difficult schedules in the country. Northwestern is consistently underrated, USC always presents a hostile environment, and UCF has lost only one game since the start of the 2017 season. It’s tough to throw in new starters or players in any one of those games, so injuries likely had more of an impact than if Stanford’s first three games were against FCS teams. 

KJ: Sally is 100% correct that you can not blame losing on injuries. Building a winning college football team is all about building competitive depth. Going into the season, that was my biggest fear for Stanford. The Cardinal have a handful of excellent players that will go on to play in the NFL. The majority of Stanford’s starters are solid players who can hold their own with anybody. But there is a pretty steep drop off from the starters to the backups, and that is why 12 true freshmen have already seen playing time. I think those backups, particularly the freshmen, will continue to improve over the course of the season and will go on to become great players as well. At the moment, however, they are not quite ready to compete with elite teams like UCF and Oregon. So although Shaw can not blame losing on the injuries his team has suffered, those injuries have taken a greater toll than ever because Stanford’s depth is not where it should be. 

SR: Stanford’s personnel department took a big hit two years ago when longtime offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren took the head coaching job at Rice University. Bloomgren coached up top NFL talents David DeCastro, Andrus Peat, Joshua Garnett and others. For the past two years, Kevin Carberry has done his best to fill Bloomgren’s shoes — it’s tough to say he’s done an excellent job. The running game was weak last season, and not a single Cardinal offensive lineman was drafted in April. The talent on this year’s line is nothing to spit at, and recruiting has been highly successful over the past three years; junior left tackle Walker Little was a five-star recruit, senior right tacke Devery Hamilton was a four-star recruit, junior center Drew Dalman was a three-star recruit, junior tackle Foster Sarrell was a five-star recruit, and the list goes on. It’s tough to argue that there’s anyone or anything but bad luck to blame for injuries, and it’s clear that recruiting is a strength rather than issue; one has to wonder if the largely lackluster performance of the offensive line group over the past year and three games warrants a closer reevaluation of its coach.

Stanford currently sits at 11th in time of possession, a traditional sign of the Cardinal football identity. That identity has generally also consisted of a strong rushing attack built on a dominant offensive line, a shutdown defense, and efficiency in the red zone. Stanford ranks tied for 105th in rushing offense, 103rd in scoring defense and 77th in red zone offense. After the game, Shaw was asked about identity, and answered that he was more concerned with winning football games. Is Stanford abandoning its identity? What is the way forward for the program?

SE: I don’t think Stanford is abandoning its identity at all, nor should there be only one way forward for the program. The Cardinal lost five players to the NFL draft, with another seven signing as free agents or earning rookie mini camp invites. That’s a lot of talent to replace, and that may mean winning in new ways which capitalize on the strengths of the current starters. While Costello hasn’t played great lately, he’s still a seasoned starter and has a great option in tight end Colby Parkinson, so throwing the ball more than most Cardinal offenses may be the way to go. Stanford has a long line of great, workhorse running backs in Bryce Love, Christian McCaffery and Toby Gerhart, to name a few. This may be one of those years, though, in which a running back committee may work better, using Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox in equal roles. Defensively, the Cardinal returns a lot of talent, and I anticipate a dominant performance will come sooner rather than later. Linebackers Gabe Reid and Jordan Fox and defensive ends Thomas Booker and Jovann Swann all were in the top six on the team last year in sacks, yet none of them have recorded one yet this season. Losing linebacker Bobby Okereke was hard, but I still think a defensive breakthrough will come.

KJ: National pundits have just begun to catch onto something Stanford fans have noticed for a while: The current version of the Cardinal looks nothing like the dominant teams earlier this decade. Stanford does not have an elite offensive line. It does not have a dominant defensive line. The Cardinal are incapable of destroying teams with their rushing attack. They are even more incapable of stopping opposing quarterbacks from destroying them. The identity of “Intellectual Brutality” that built this Stanford program is gone. That is okay. Stanford has an excellent quarterback with an exciting receiving corps. It has a bunch of promising pass rushers and defensive playmakers. The problem is, Stanford has not given up on its old identity and embraced the new. David Shaw is trying to be Jim Harbaugh when his personnel is really better suited for Mike Leach. The Cardinal need to open it up offensively, spreading out opponents to cover up weaknesses along the offensive line and utilize the immense skill position talent in the program. Defensively, Stanford must commit to being aggressive, masking its defensive line deficiency with an aggressive pass rush that disrupts opposing offenses. Until Stanford leaves behind Intellectual Brutality, the Cardinal can not realize their full potential. Stanford has a talented roster with many strengths. Shaw and his coaching staff need to play to those strengths rather than hiding them. 

SR: The team’s offensive mentality must evolve; as King said, “Intellectual Brutality” is in the past. However, I worry that even in doing so, this season will be a wash. I don’t see immense skill position talent in the program. I don’t see a quarterback who has been excellent, or a receiving corps that has shown any signs of being exciting yet. I see an inexperienced group of players under an offensive coach with an outdated ideology in a transition year for the program. The way forward is the way that all of college and NFL football’s top offenses are going: toward a heavy emphasis on the pass. To implement it, the executor of Stanford’s passing offense must step up. This weekend, K.J. Costello will face a player in Oregon’s Justin Herbert who was hailed as the 2020 NFL Draft’s first-overall pick before the season even started. It’s time for Costello — a former five-star recruit — to take a stand and prove that he deserves to be in that conversation. 

Stanford is often touted as a “marquis” college football program. If it is to maintain that status this year, it will need a spectacular year by its signal caller; this Saturday, we’ll find out if that player is on the Cardinal roster or not. 

Contact Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu, King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu and Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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 rsreddy@stanford.edu.