By King Jemison
Stanford football (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) is in a dark place after two consecutive blowout defeats. The Cardinal defense collapsed in the second half of a shocking 45-20 loss at USC. It did not take that long for the road game against UCF to go sideways; Stanford trailed 28-7 after the first quarter in Orlando. Something feels broken on the Farm right now. The once vaunted Stanford rushing attack is a shell of its former self. The current Cardinal defense could not hold a candle to dominant units from earlier this decade. The identity of “Intellectual Brutality” is gone. Now, Stanford returns home to face No. 16 Oregon (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12), who looks to avenge a crushing 38-31 overtime home loss to the Cardinal last season. National pundits have given up on Stanford. So have most Cardinal fans.
But this week, David Shaw ’94 might have a chance to completely change the narrative of Stanford football. Shaw’s teams have always been much better at home, with the Cardinal legend winning almost 85% of his games in Stanford Stadium. Stanford also has a better winning percentage in Pac-12 games (.753) under Shaw than in non-conference games (.736). And Shaw has gone 5-3 against Oregon despite facing some of the best Ducks teams of all time. Those stats might mean nothing in this game. However, they might also point to a bounce-back performance from Stanford in a game where almost no one expects it.
Stanford is likely just fighting for bowl eligibility this season. But in 2017, Stanford started 1-2 with an ugly loss to USC in the Coliseum followed by an ugly road loss to a Group of Five team in San Diego State. They rebounded to go 9-3 and win the Pac-12 North. Although it looks totally unlikely, perhaps Stanford finds a way to rekindle last year’s magical win over Oregon and ride that momentum to an exciting season. Here are three keys to sending the Class of 2023 football fans home happy with a win in their first home game on the Farm:
1) Make Herbert mortal
For most of Stanford’s 2018 matchup with Oregon, Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert looked nothing short of a quarterback god. Herbert completed 25 of 27 passes in regulation of that game before cooling off in overtime. If the future NFL first round draft pick had not fumbled a goal-line snap that Stanford linebacker Joey Alfieri then returned for a touchdown, Oregon would have won handily, and Herbert’s performance would have gone down as one of the most dominant and efficient in college football history. Instead, Stanford escaped with an improbable victory and K.J. Costello briefly stole the spotlight from his more famous Pac-12 North counterpart. But that terrible performance from the Stanford pass defense foreshadowed struggles that plagued it all of last year, and it has only gotten worse in 2019.
The Stanford secondary yielded dominant performances to a pair of true freshman quarterbacks over the past two weeks. First, USC’s Kedon Slovis mercilessly carved up the Cardinal defense for 377 yards and three touchdowns while completing almost 85% of his passes in his first start. Then UCF’s Dillon Gabriel did his best McKenzie Milton impression, tossing four touchdown passes and throwing for 347 yards. The week after Slovis tore up Stanford, he threw three interceptions on the road at BYU. The week before his huge game against the Cardinal, Gabriel completed just 7 of 19 passes against Florida Atlantic. Clearly, Stanford’s secondary has been uniquely bad in 2019. If that continues against Herbert, it could be another blowout loss for the Cardinal.
Herbert is off to a red-hot start this season, completing 73% of his passes for nearly 290 yards per game, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has the ability to single-handedly doom the Stanford defense. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s unit must get pressure on Herbert and make him uncomfortable. Maybe then the Cardinal defensive backs can force him into another mistake like his overtime interception that sealed the Stanford win last season.
2) Build from the ground up
If there was one positive to take away from last week’s horrible loss to UCF, it would be that the Stanford rushing attack was actually fairly efficient against an aggressive Knights defense. The Cardinal averaged five yards per rush attempt in Orlando, including a 35-yard touchdown scamper from freshman Austin Jones (featuring a rare quarterback block by Costello). Stanford started two true freshmen at tackle in that game. Now, it appears that junior tackle Foster Sarell will be available, giving the Cardinal much needed offensive-line depth and talent. Although Oregon has a solid front seven, Auburn was able to wear down the Ducks with their rushing attack over the course of the Tigers’ Week 1 win. The Tigers accumulated 206 yards on the ground, averaging nearly five yards per carry. In what was an otherwise ugly defensive struggle, Auburn’s success on the ground gave it the edge over Oregon. Stanford would be wise to follow the Auburn blueprint and lean on the ground game.
Of course, for Stanford to be able to lean on the run game, the Cardinal have to be capable of running the ball consistently. It will require the best offensive line performance of the season, while Cameron Scarlett, Austin Jones and the rest of the Stanford backfield must break tackles to help out their line. But if Stanford can build upon its promising performance on the ground last week, the rushing attack could provide everything the Cardinal need to knock off their Pac-12 North rivals.
3) Bring back the brand
Stanford is facing an identity crisis. The Cardinal are caught between the physical, run-heavy, old-school system that made them famous and the flashy, athletic, aerial attack that better suits their current personnel. Shaw must fit the program to his players, but at the same time, Stanford can never forget its roots. The Cardinal teams of old bullied the faster Oregon squads because they were stronger, tougher, and more disciplined. Even if the Ducks came away with a win, Stanford left them bruised and battered from 60 minutes of all-out war in the trenches. Now, Mario Cristobal is trying to turn Oregon into the most physical Pac-12 program. His team has perhaps the best offensive line in the country and a defense filled with size and speed. Stanford may be helpless to stop the Ducks from running them out of their own stadium. But if there is any part of that “Intellectual Brutality” left in Stanford’s 2019 DNA, it must show up in this game. The Cardinal need a blast from their physical past in Stanford Stadium. If it can hang with Oregon in the trenches, Stanford might just have a shot to save the season.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.