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Football Roundtable: ‘Oh boy, the quarterback question’

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Stanford currently sits at 1-3 and is just getting into the heart of a schedule deemed to be the most difficult in the nation preseason. To say the least, the ten-year run of bowl appearances is in jeopardy for the Cardinal. Entering the season, however, it was always a possibility that Stanford would start the season 0-4. Although an opening day victory over Northwestern lifted the spirits of the Cardinal faithful, the three consecutive losses have disheartened many. Now, the game that casual fans and pundits alike pointed to as the first likely win has presented itself: a trip to take on Oregon State. The Daily’s King Jemison, Shan Reddy and Daniel Martinez-Krams talk expectations for the defense, quarterbacks and the Beavers’ rushing game.

Stanford’s defense held its own against Oregon, with the Ducks limited to just 21 points. Captain Casey Toohill has established himself as a legitimate pass rush force with a career-high two sacks last game, and leads the team with 28 tackles. His four sacks rank 19th nationally and lead the Pac-12, while his six tackles for loss are second in the conference and 31st nationally. One of the preseason questions, strong safety, has been answered dutifully by Andrew Pryts, who made his first career start against Northwestern and is now second on the team in tackles after tallying eight against Oregon. As a whole, the Cardinal are second in the nation with two defensive touchdowns. Do you trust the improved defensive play moving forward?

King Jemison (KJ): I like the way the defense fought against Oregon and Northwestern, but I have not yet forgotten the endless missed tackles and wide open receivers that led to USC and UCF both putting up 45 points on Stanford in consecutive weeks. The Cardinal defense has potential when it can get to the quarterback, and fifth-year Casey Toohill is really emerging as the next great Stanford linebacker in his final season. However, I do not believe that the defense can carry Stanford to a successful season. The secondary is not deep or talented enough, and the defensive line seems inconsistent. Plus, as long as the offense continues to struggle, the defense will be under too much pressure to do it all. Although Stanford has two defensive touchdowns already this season, that is not something you can count on in every game. I could see the Stanford defense emerging as a top-five unit in the Pac-12, but that is pretty much the ceiling. And that would not be enough to get Stanford to a bowl game unless the offense plays much better.

Shan Reddy (SR): The performance of now junior cornerback Paulson Adebo last season was stellar, and after an offseason that saw the loss of few defensive starters — most notably linebackers Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri — the Cardinal entered this season with the potential to have a top defensive unit in the Pac-12. However, Adebo has struggled this season, and so has the Cardinal defense as a whole. I’d argue that this weekend’s game against the Beavers will be one indicative of the performance we can expect to see going forward this season. Oregon State can put up points; they scored more touchdowns in last weekend’s game against Cal Poly than Stanford has scored all season. If Stanford’s defense can hold the Beavers under three touchdowns this weekend, we should feel comfortable holding onto hopes that the Cardinal can finish in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 in terms of yards allowed by the end of the year.

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): I am feeling bullish about the state of the Stanford defense. What we saw against Oregon, for a second consecutive week, was a fight until the end propelled by freshmen even when the chance of victory appeared slim to none due to an anemic offense. Granted, the one caveat is that Oregon and UCF both knew their leads would likely be sufficient to hold off Stanford, but neither program is known for its modesty or class, more often than not choosing to run up the score.

Entering the season, senior captain K.J. Costello was graded the 31st-best player in college football by PFF. Now, after underperforming in two games since returning from injury, many have soured on Costello. It was even suggested on the crazy world of Stanford football Twitter that the characteristic of Costello that set him apart from other Cardinal quarterbacks of the era is his ability to push the ball down the field. In fact, much of the PFF grade owed to his being the nation’s leader in deep passing yards in 2018. Now, with a suspect offensive line and speedy receivers, Stanford has resorted to underneath routes. Is Costello still the best option at quarterback?

KJ: Oh boy, the quarterback question. Although the last two games were alarming, I am not yet ready to give up on Costello. He looked efficient and effective in the first half of the Northwestern win. I believe that his struggles against UCF and Oregon might have something to do with the lingering effects from the injury he suffered in the opener. He seems rusty and timid in the pocket (except when he blocks ten yards downfield, apparently). His passes lack the heat that allowed him to “throw open” wide receivers last year. If he is not fully recovered, he should not be out on the field. But as he continues to recover, I expect that we will start to see more of the old KJ coming back. That being said, Davis Mills is a tremendously talented quarterback. Loyalty is important, but loyalty for the sake of loyalty is dangerous. If Costello struggles again on Saturday, it might be time to give Mills a chance if only to provide a spark. 

SR: It goes without saying that these past three games have seen rough performances by KJ Costello. Without the NFL-caliber receiving options the offense boasted last season, Costello’s nation-leading deep passing appears to be a thing of the past. Stanford currently sits at dead last in the conference in total offense, and second to last only to Oregon State in passing yards. Three games against a diversity of opponents should be enough for head coach David Shaw ’94 to make the call: Either commit to Costello for the remainder of the season, or make a change and prepare the next man up to lead the Cardinal forward.

DMK: The fans’ favorite player on a losing football team is the backup quarterback. There’s a reason Joseph from down the hall is not the head coach of Stanford football. Costello is a senior, a second-year captain — just the fifth under Shaw — and a next-level talent. During rocky times, a poised leader who commands the team is exactly what is needed. Putting in a quarterback from down the depth chart is shark bait. The depth chart currently lists an “OR” designation between Costello and Mills. It is not because the coaching staff is wavering, someone saw something on tape or Costello is handing over his starting job. It is because Costello is hurt. The Costello who was lights out in the first half of the Northwestern game is not the Costello who has returned from injury. The Costello that was hovering around a 50 percent completion rate against Oregon suffered a hand injury in the first quarter after a collision with a helmet. Shaw doubled down this week and has no thoughts of switching it up. For many fans, that is only further persuasion that Mills is the right choice. Again, that is why Joseph is not coaching. Shaw has a proven track record with quarterback talent and Costello can ball.

Although Stanford has won nine straight games against Oregon State, two of the last three in Corvallis have been decided by ten points or less, most recently with a 15-14 Cardinal win in 2017. Last year, Jermar Jefferson terrorized Stanford for 109 yards on 19 carries and has already compiled 275 rushing yards in just two games. As a team, the Beavers are averaging 229 yards per game on the ground, and are coming off a bye week and before that a momentous 45-7 thumping of Cal Poly. If Oregon State gets it done on the ground, will it be enough to snap Stanford’s win streak in the matchup?

KJ: Oregon State and Stanford are much more similar this year than Shaw and his staff would like to admit. The gap between the Pac-12 North foes who have been on opposite ends of the division for years is now slimmer than ever. Oregon State has a much more explosive and efficient offense than Stanford so far in 2019. If that continues on Saturday, the Beavers could absolutely grab a massive home win. Jefferson is one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, and even coming off injury, he will probably get loose once or twice against the Cardinal. After the past three games, though, I am even more worried about the Oregon State passing attack shredding Stanford. Oregon State QB Jake Luton is solid, and he has an elite target at wide receiver in Isaiah Hodgins. Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson must turn up the heat on Luton or else the Cardinal secondary could be in for another tough game. And if Stanford finds itself in a shootout, the Cardinal offense might not have enough bullets to keep up with the aggressive Beavers. Stanford needs to control the tempo of this game and prevent big plays from the Oregon State offense. 

SR: Shaw’s offensive philosophy, when executed properly, allows the Cardinal to control the tempo of the game with a continuous ground-and-pound power rushing attack; this way Oregon State’s time of possession will be kept low enough that Jefferson won’t have enough time to build up a head of steam. The inconsistency of Stanford’s passing attack makes the importance of getting the running game going increasingly imperative this weekend. Meanwhile, the Beavers have beaten teams on the ground and through the air this season and are coming off of a hot streak of high-scoring games. Stanford must rotate in backs with Cameron Scarlett to add diversity to the running game and keep the Beavers off the field this Saturday; hopefully, Costello will be able to supplement the ground game with a few deep shots over the top. Look for Stanford’s tower of a tight end, junior Colby Parkinson, to have a big game both as a blocker and as a pass catcher.

DMK: If Oregon State is able to run all over Stanford, then there is no doubt in my mind they will win. Essentially, in this scenario, Oregon State has either a lead or the game is close, otherwise they would be forced to pass — if only due to pesky time constraints. Right now, the way Stanford is playing, games will be won and lost with the defense. If Oregon State is allowed to do its thing and an extremely talented Jefferson rushes for upwards of 100 yards and other backs are thinking about eclipsing the century mark, then Stanford will fall deeper into its own hole. Otherwise, if Stanford forces Oregon State to pass, the one team in the conference worse at that aspect of the game, a glimmer of hope may return to the Farm.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu and Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘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.
Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a desk editor in the sports section. He is originally from Berkeley, California. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.