An unconvincing, last-second Stanford win over perennial Pac-12 North cellar dwellers Oregon State did little to calm the nerves of the Cardinal faithful. Now, Stanford begins a month at home and a three-game homestand facing No. 15 Washington. The good news is that Washington has not won at Stanford since 2007. The bad news is that through five games, Washington has outscored opponents 77-3 in the first quarter and has forced nine turnovers this season. On seven of the ensuing drives, the Huskies scored (six TDs, one FG) and on the other two ran the clock out to end the game. Stanford has a tall task ahead. The Daily’s King Jemison, Sally Egan and Shan Reddy discuss Stanford quarterbacks, defensive pressure and how to pull off an upset.
Preferably, this will not become a recurring question, but junior Davis Mills played himself into the quarterback conversation. Senior K.J. Costello’s status this week is between “questionable and doubtful” according to David Shaw ’94. Last week, the consensus seemed to be to rely on the senior captain. Is that still the case? Who gives Stanford a better chance to win now? At what point is it better to start developing next year’s starter?
King Jemison (KJ): Mills looked sharp in the win over Oregon State, completing 18 of 25 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns. The former five-star recruit is the most talented passer in that QB room, and he possesses upside that Costello frankly does not. That being said, Stanford should not put all its eggs in the Mills basket right away. I would still like to see Costello get a chance to play when he is fully healthy. Putting players into the NFL is a top priority for Shaw and his coaching staff. Costello has serious NFL potential, but he needs to show more in his senior season if he wants to hear his name called in April. Mills is clearly the quarterback of the future for Stanford, and that is a great thing for Cardinal fans. But if Costello gets healthy, it should not be a foregone conclusion that Mills will start anyway.
Sally Egan (SE): I have to agree with King that Mills possess the most upside and presents the Cardinal with the better chance to win now and in the future, though I don’t think we can forget about his decent but unspectacular performance in the USC game. Mills played significantly better against Oregon State but we can’t forget that the Beavers aren’t exactly the Crimson Tide, or even another middle of the road Pac-12 team. That being said, to the extent that King is correct that Shaw wants to put players in the NFL, the Cardinal should play Costello. My faith in him has been dramatically shaken since the beginning of the season, and I don’t know how his draft stock can be any higher than a late day three pick based off of this season alone. Obviously, he has some key qualities that NFL coaches like to see and has solid highlights from last year, but this season he hasn’t had some of his top weapons from last year and it showed. Stanford isn’t going to go to the playoff this year, or even a major bowl game. Wins are obviously important, but they won’t do a whole lot for the Cardinal at this point. Giving Costello another shot to rebuild his draft stock might end up achieving more of Shaw’s goals than getting another win or two under Mills.
Shan Reddy (SR): Shaw should start the quarterback with the highest potential to lead the future of the program forward and the upside to give this season’s team a consistent fighting chance. Now a senior, Costello is tried and true; he’s a known commodity. We know what he can do, and sadly, it hasn’t proven to be much. Nagging injuries and a downgrade in downfield receiving targets have had a clear impact on the former team captain. It’s time for a change — an upgrade, glimpses of which we were able to catch last weekend. Mills played a fantastic game against Oregon State, and did everything he needed to do to get the job done and prove that he is the future for Stanford football at the quarterback position. With a 2-3 record on the season and Costello’s days for the Cardinal nearing their injury-riddled end, there’s no more time for Shaw to drag his feet on the decision: Start Davis Mills.
Last week, in the first half, Stanford’s defense recorded four sacks and shutout Oregon State. In the second half, the Beavers scored 28 points on four consecutive drives and unsurprisingly, Stanford could not get a single second-half sack of Jake Luton. How instrumental is getting pressure to Stanford’s success?
KJ: Because Stanford’s secondary is having such a rough season, the pressure is (ironically) on the front seven to keep getting pressure on the quarterback or else opposing quarterbacks will continue slicing through the Cardinal defense like a hot knife through butter. Luton is a solid quarterback, but there is no reason why he should be completing nearly 70% of his passes for 337 yards like he did against Stanford. Luton’s performance continued a troubling trend of quarterbacks having career performances against the Cardinal defense. The only times when defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s unit has been able to slow down opposing offenses is when they fire up the party in the backfield and rack up sacks.
SE: The fact that we’ve been asking the quarterback question every week is indicative of the somewhat dire state of the offense. Whether it is Mills or Costello, the passing game will not carry this team. Fifth-year Cameron Scarlett and senior Dorian Maddox have been good, but again, neither of them can be relied on to carry the team. The defense, and in particularly the front seven, has too much talent to be another weak link on this team. The potential was clear in the first half, albeit against the woeful Beavers. Pressuring the quarterback is perhaps the area which the Cardinal can most obviously improve in, given all the veteran talent on the team. If Stanford is going to turn this season into some semblance of a success, the pressure the team puts on the quarterback has to get better.
SR: It seems that the more we discuss, it becomes more and more clear that the passing game will not carry this team. The running game won’t carry this team. The front-seven pressure won’t carry this team. There is no one unit with enough talent or experience to give the Cardinal a significant edge over anyone — anyone -— who they’re going to play for the rest of the year. The team barely pulled off a narrow win over a consistently terrible team in the Oregon State Beavers that would consider their season historic if they don’t finish in last place in the conference.
Of course, generating defensive pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback is important for any successful football team. Sure, it will be important for Stanford to maintain balance — push the ball down the field through the air, grind out tough yards on the ground, contest passes on defense, generate some front-seven pressure — but what the Cardinal needs now more than ever is a step towards exceptionalism. Someone needs to step up for this team, whether it’s Mills (a former five-star recruit more highly touted than Alabama’s Heisman-contender Tua Tagovailoa back in 2017) living up to expectations with high-powered passing, freshman Austin Jones getting in line behind a long succession of impressive Cardinal runners, or a defensive player like senior Casey Toohill setting a dominant edge as a pass-rusher. If this team’s going to put up weak to average performances across the board this season, then settle in, Cardinal faithful: Stanford football is heading towards the same middling and mundane ways of Stanford men’s basketball.
Washington has some exceptional talents in Salvon Ahmed, who is averaging almost 100 rushing yards per game, Jacob Eason, who completes 71% of his passes for an average of nearly 250 yards, and Myles Bryant, who leads the team in tackles and has added a sack and two interceptions. At the same time, Washington is not invincible. It took freakish circumstances and an outstanding performance by a high quality Cal football team, but the Huskies lost at home. If Stanford manages to pull out this unlikely upset, how does it happen?
KJ: The sad truth is, I think a Stanford upset over Washington would be one of the most surprising results of the season so far. The Huskies have been unstoppable since that shocking Cal loss in a game that was delayed nearly three hours and finished at 1:22 a.m. After that soggy performance, Washington destroyed a good Hawaii team at home, then went on the road to blow out a BYU squad that had just beaten USC, before returning home to choke out those same Trojans in a 28-14 game that was not that close. Eason might have the strongest arm in college football, and Ahmed is a burner that just broke off an 89-yard touchdown run in the USC game. Stanford’s only chance at an upset hinges upon the passing attack having an explosive performance, while the Cardinal pass rush keeps the Huskies from scoring on every possession. If Mills gets the nod on Saturday, it will be a matchup of former five-star recruits who are still trying to make their mark in college. Perhaps Mills can outplay Eason in Stanford Stadium with an assist from the feisty Cardinal defense. If Stanford can keep it competitive into the fourth quarter, it will be anyone’s ballgame. But there will be major blowout potential on the Farm this Saturday night.
SE: The equivalent of this game in the SEC would perhaps be Texas A&M at LSU a few years ago in 2013, back when LSU had one of the stalest offenses in the country and Texas A&M was flying with Johnny Football and Mike Evans. While both teams were ranked, the Aggies were significantly favored due to their superior offense, despite the game being in Baton Rouge. LSU routed A&M 34-10 due to the Tigers shutting down the high-flying A&M offense, forcing Manziel into a 14.6 QBR, Zach Mettenberger playing mediocre but mistake-free football at quarterback for LSU, and the outstanding atmosphere the crowd created at Denny-Bryant Stadium. Alas, Stanford Stadium isn’t Denny-Bryant, and the Cardinal defense doesn’t currently appear to be on the level of that 2013 Tigers’, but wilder things have happened. Should Stanford’s defense step up, Mills and/or Costello manage the game turnover-free, and Stanford students decide to show up to the game and help force an upset, the Cardinal may very well upset the Huskies.
SR: The Washington-Cal game was a defensive slugfest. Neither team had a passing touchdown, but both starting quarterbacks were sacked multiple times. The Cal defense was able to rattle Jacob Eason in his second game starting for Washington after he announced his transfer from Georgia last February. Eason completed just 60% of his passes against the Golden Bears’ defense, threw a pick and fumbled twice. Cal pressured Eason throughout the game with creative defensive packages including a cornerback blitz by junior Elijah Hicks that ended the Huskies’ final offensive drive of the first half.
Though he’s now playing out his redshirt junior year after starting as a true freshman for the Georgia Bulldogs back in the 2016 season, Eason has only played 21 games as a starter. It may not be accurate to call him inexperienced, but the Cal game showed that he is easily rattled, and still hasn’t developed enough confidence in the pocket to stand strong while getting hit. To slow Eason down this Saturday, the Stanford defense is going to have to do just that: Hit him.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.