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Football roundtable: Bye bye Bruins

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Stanford is coming off its best win of the season, a 23-13 defeat of then-No. 15 Washington in Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal outclassed, outperformed and most importantly outran the Huskies. The injury bug bit again, with both Davis Mills and Henry Hattis exiting the game, but Stanford will have most of its squad up for the Thursday night matchup with UCLA. After a loss to Oregon State, the Bruins sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 South. The Daily’s King Jemison, Sally Egan and Shan Reddy join Daniel Martinez-Krams for a podcast to talk offensive surprises and disappointments, the state of the defense, challenges UCLA presents, and a little bit of recruiting. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Fifth-year running back Cam Scarlett is not only the conference’s leading rusher, but his 564 yards rank 15th in the entire nation. With a line that has been nothing short of decimated and uncertainty at quarterback, Scarlett is playing like he is trying to convince someone he belongs on a roster next season. How remarkable is Cam?

Shan Reddy (SR): This season Cam has shown us that he can be a steady and reliable running back but we haven’t really seen him make any dynamic or explosive plays. Last year, it was a lot of the same but this year he’s been a lot more consistent, which has been huge. Even though Stanford has played against a variety of defenses and fronts, Cam is consistent, averaging just over four yards per carry, which is a really solid average considering how many carries he’s getting and the fact that he’s been the center point of the offense for the majority of the season. 

King Jemison (KJ): Yeah, definitely. I think he’s at 4.4 yards per carry. And for context, Bryce Love ’19 finished last season at four-and-a-half yards per carry. And that was with, you know, multiple long runs and a lot fewer carries per game than Scarlett is getting right now. Based on his 564 yards in the first six games, he could finish with a top-10 rushing season in Stanford history, which is pretty crazy to imagine considering he’s a fifth-year who’s never started before, but he just really runs hard. Like you were saying, Shan, he does not have the explosive potential that Love and Christian McCaffrey most certainly did. But he definitely does have that grittiness that I think is so important for the Stanford team because the offensive line is good, not great. They’ve shown some definite potential, really over anything I could have imagined for them considering they’re starting three true freshmen at this point. But Scarlett really helps them out because he falls forward, he gets extra yards after contact, never lets the first man bring him down, and never lets himself get dragged down way behind the line unless he’s just absolutely swarmed. He usually finds a way to turn even no hole into a couple yards, which might be the perfect match for the Stanford team.

Sally Egan (SE): Going off of that, I think that Cam Scarlett has shown that last season, when he was filling in for Bryce Love when Love was hurt, he played very well and showed that that was not a fluke. I think the one area that he could improve upon this season is that last season he performed much better in the red zone and had five touchdowns in the red zone and was averaging two yards per carry on from the opponent’s 19 yard line to the goal line. This season he is only averaging one yard per carry in that distance and only has two red zone touchdowns so far. So I think if Cam Scarlett can start reproducing a little bit more of what he did in the red zone last year, I think it’ll really show what a dynamic football player he is.

The three quarterbacks, senior KJ Costello (left), sophomore Jack West (center) and junior Davis Mills (right), celebrate after the upset victory over Washington. Both Mills and West appeared in that game, and one of the two will start after the Monday announcement that Costello has been ruled out. (JOHN P. LOZANO/isiphotos.com)

DMK: The Stanford defense has held two good Pac-12 offenses below six yards per play. Oregon was limited to 5.9 and Washington 5.1 yards per play. Against USC, UCF and Oregon State, a different defense showed up and allowed at least seven yards per play. Is the defense trending in the right direction and making real progress? What defense do we expect to come out against UCLA?

KJ: To me, the answer is pretty darn simple. When the defense gets pressure, they can be really good. When they don’t get pressure, they’re going to get absolutely torched. That’s been almost universally true for every game. Some stats to point to the fact that pressure is the key. Stanford got four sacks against Oregon. They had a good defensive performance to hold down a pretty good Ducks team. They had four sacks in the first half against Oregon State and shut out the Beavers in that first half. Then they got zero sacks in the second half, Beavers scored 28 and almost stole the game. And then in the Washington game, they had just two sacks but six quarterback carries. Washington’s quarterback Jacob Eason was running for his life the entire game. Sure enough, you can hold a good UW team to 13 points. But on the other side of things against UCF and USC, there was only one sack in those two games and zero other quarterback hurries. Basically they got no pressure, and sure enough, they gave up 45 points both times. So I think for Stanford, because the secondary is young and inexperienced outside of Paulson Adebo, they may not be the most talented unit. They need some help from the pass rush and this pass rush has a lot of potential. I love what fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill is doing this year. I love guys like junior outside linebacker Gabe Reid, sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker, who are starting to make more plays as the year goes along. They’re really the leaders of this defense and so when they come through, I think that Stanford can be pretty elite, but when they don’t come through, that’s when Stanford is going to really show those woes in the passing game that kind of were there all year last year as well. Good news for the UCLA game. UCLA is 80th in the country in sacks allowed per game. They’ve given up 2.3 per game. They definitely have a very weak offensive line, and I think that’s something Stanford can take advantage of to have a good defensive performance against the Bruins.

SR: Stanford is certainly going to have to rely on their pass rush this week. As is the case with any good football team, the pass rush is essential to keeping the quarterback pressured and keeping the offense rested and off the field. But after the last few weeks of really dismal performances on defense, Stanford is ranked ninth in total yards allowed in the entire FBS and seventh in yards per play allowed. The secondary is really inexperienced and has allowed too many chunk plays this season so far, that’s something that’s not sustainable. So we really just have to hope that the pass rush gets home this week, and guys like Toohill and senior outside linebacker Jordan Fox can get pressure on UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson Robinson and contain him in the pocket, because he’s also a serious rushing threat.

SE: I would agree with both King and Shan. I think one other thing worth pointing out is the quality of the offenses that Stanford has played against. USC, UCF and Oregon State all ranked above Oregon and Washington in total yards per game. And UCLA is below Washington. So if the Stanford defense continues this trend of playing well against the lesser offenses, then I think that they should be fine against UCLA. 

KJ: I got a question for y’all. Who does everyone think is the most important Stanford defensive player?

SR: I’d have to go with cornerback Paulson Adebo for sure. The ability to lock up the opponent’s number one receiver, and even though he has shown lapses in that department, he’s by far the most talented and skilled player on the defense with the most upside and the most draft potential and the biggest potential for an NFL future. If the Stanford defense can just really lock down the secondary and really get some experience among their safeties, it really eases up the pressure on the defensive front, the pressure to create pressure. If Paulson can live up to the expectations that he created after such an awesome and impressive 2018 season, it’s going to really boost Stanford’s prospects on defense.

DMK: I think it has to be outside linebacker Casey Toohill. I mean, as you mentioned, the pressure that he puts on a quarterback is really what’s defining this season for the Cardinal, especially on defense. But more than that, he’s a captain. He’s a leader. When he’s playing well, it seems like the whole unit works off of him and has a better game and we’ve seen in some of his best games, Stanford has played its best on defense.

SE: I have to agree with Daniel. I think that the pass rushers in this case, but I would have to go with outside linebacker Gabe Reid or defensive end Jovan Swann. I think both of them had very strong seasons last year. Reid led the team with 5.5 sacks. I think if he can start reproducing at that sort of level this season, I think that he could really provide a boost to the Stanford defense.

DMK: Maybe the most concerning part of last game was the lack of execution in the red zone. Two early trips deep into Washington territory led to two Jet Toner field goals. Both times, there were two consecutive run plays and a low percentage pass. Where is Stanford going wrong?

SR: The thing is that this offensive style should work, and it’s emblematic of the same style that head coach David Shaw ’94 has had in place for so long. The three-down run, run, play-action pass series. Right? And the issue with that is it’s entirely reliant on first, creating solid and consistent running plays on first and second down, whether it’s two yards, three yards, four yards; whatever it is, you just have to get positive yardage. And second, we have to have a quarterback that can successfully execute that third-down pass. And if either of those two things falls out of the equation, the whole series falls apart. We’re just going to see three and outs over and over again. We’ve been seeing two or three yard runs over and over again, and incomplete passes, which is why the offense has been three-and-out after three-and-out. The offensive staff has to make sure that their play calling on those third-down passing plays are strong enough and creative enough to get the job done, and that the throw is straightforward enough to take pressure off of Mills to execute it.

KJ: Yeah, I honestly think you answered that question when you asked it because when you say run, run pass, two straight trips in the red zone, two straight trips to the one yard line, and you come up short. It just hints at the fact that creativity is so important in red zone play calling and we know that Shaw is a known creative play caller. He really likes to go out of his box and experiment. He’s always been on the cutting edge of football offensive schemes. But it’s gotten particularly bad in those red zone situations. Think about the Stanford special back against Oregon State and what a huge boost to this team that was. I’m not saying we need to be running trick plays every time, but in the red zone, the defense is going to be totally keyed in on the run when you’re playing against Stanford because you know that’s what Shaw wants to see. He wants to see Cam Scarlett bulldoze his way into the end zone. But when the defense is completely ready to stop that and they’ve got their backs against the goal line, that’s usually not going to be something that this Stanford offensive line is going to be able to execute. And last year, the crutch was, of course, the fade to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Although these receivers have shown a lot of great things, there’s no Arcega-Whiteside. There’s nobody who’s just snatching every ball from the defenders on a fade route. So they just got to find new ways to scheme wide receivers open. I think that’s been my biggest complaint at times with the Stanford offensive scheme this year. It’s not been so much the reliance on the run because I think they’ve actually had a really nice balance, but the route trees are just so bland sometimes. I mean, in the Oregon game, I was talking to some other people who cover Stanford, and they were complaining very loudly that it was either four verts, or fourth grade curls, every single play for every single wide receiver. So you just got to find ways to mix up the routes, maybe you run a rub route, and get a guy open that way or maybe run some slant or crossing routes, anything that can maybe sneak a tight end wide open in the corner of the end zone. You just can’t run straight into the teeth of the defense on the one yard line and expect to punch it through every time.

SE: I would agree with King on this, I think the very basic formula of run, run, pass is just way too predictable. Daniel, as you pointed out earlier, the offensive line is hurting with injuries. I think especially considering that, the defense is going to be prepared for a run on first down, second, even third. They know what’s coming. They know what Shaw likes to do on the one yard line in the red zone. I think Stanford has to get more unpredictable.

DMK: What really stands out to me about that is that in those six plays in the red zone, Stanford managed to lose a yard in that first half. Stanford’s next opponent, besides itself is UCLA. To say that the Bruins rely heavily on their offense is an understatement. In their lone win, the defense allowed 63 points and 720 yards. The UCLA quarterback story is that of a higher-ceiling worse-performing Dorian Thompson-Robinson starting over Austin Burton. At running back, Joshua Kelley has been a workhorse and Demetric Felton has shown big play potential. The offensive line is basically nonexistent, and allowed eight tackles for loss and three sacks last game to Oregon State. What is most worrying to Stanford fans about this upcoming matchup?

SR: The most worrying thing to me is the upside of Dorian Thompson-Robinson. This is a guy who was recruited as the second-overall dual-threat quarterback in the country coming out of high school right after Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who’s now a legitimate Heisman candidate and who very well could be starting for an NFL football team within the next few years. As a Las Vegas native, this is a guy that I’ve watched for years; he absolutely shredded teams in Vegas and all around Nevada (my high school included) as a runner and as a passer. This season, it’s not an overstatement to say he’s been horrendous as a rusher. He had three back-to-back games earlier this season with negative yards rushing. In his first game as the starter, he had 10 attempts for -20 yards rushing, and in the second game seven attempts for -19 yards rushing. These performances showed that thus far defenses have been able to figure out how to stop him and he hasn’t really shown that he can take off as a transcendent rushing threat in college yet. But as a passer, he’s certainly shown that he can deliver deep shots, and the UCLA wide receiver corps has enough speed to get it done. Dorian Thompson-Robinson hasn’t exploded onto the scene yet, but I think it’s going to happen soon. The Stanford fan just hopes that it’s not against us.

KJ: I would say he did have an explosion game just a few weeks ago at Washington State. I mean, he goes from a few horrible performances to open up the season to then going into Pullman, a place where we’ve seen Stanford’s dreams of great seasons go to die, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson comes out of that game as the Pac-12 player of the week after throwing for over 500 yards with five touchdowns through the air and two on the ground. But you’re exactly right, Shan. That is the one aberration on a stat sheet that is filled with a lot of really bad performances. He’s just shown a total lack of consistency, except that the scary thing about UCLA is they do have that next year and Demetric Felton is one of the best playmakers in the Pac-12. He’s basically torn up everybody they’ve played. He’s a guy that if he gets loose, I mean, we’ve seen Stanford struggle with speed at the UCF game on that one and at USC as well, they’ve really struggled with fast and athletic wide receivers. Well, Demetric Felton is another example of a guy who can do it running and receiving. And I think that’s the kind of guy who’s given Stanford trouble over the years. And so they’re going to have to find a way to keep UCLA in more of the Cincinnati performance where they put up 14 points on a group of five team or put up 14 points on another group of five team in San Diego State, rather than that one Washington State game where they put up 67.

SE: I think as Shan was talking about with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, he does have the potential like he was heavily recruited out of high school. And I think he’s had his moments and he’s had big games, but he has been wildly inconsistent. UCLA and their head coach Chip Kelly are going to be looking to this Stanford defense, and seeing how inconsistent the secondary has been performing, recognize that there is the potential for possibly a breakout game for Thompson-Robinson to really show off the skills that had him so highly recruited coming out of high school. So I think that the quarterback is definitely the thing that I would most be worried about first as a Stanford fan.

SR: Another quick thing to note is that Dorian Thompson-Robinson got injured in his last game against Arizona, and he just returned to practice Thursday after injuring his leg. So I think it’s reasonable to say that the Stanford defense shouldn’t have to expect too many funky boot plays or QB-run plays. They really need to focus in on locking up the passing defense this Thursday.

DMK: Because this is the bye week, we have a little extra time, so let’s talk about the future of the program. According to our friends at Rivals, five star offensive lineman Myles Hinton, four-star wide receiver John Humphreys, and this past weekend, four-star defensive back Ayden Hector have all committed to the 2020 class. Also this past weekend, four star 2021 quarterback Miller Moss was one of many recruits to visit the Farm and see the win over Washington, and was offered after the game. The class is one of the better ones in the country. How would you like to see it fill out to set Stanford up for success four years down the line?

SE: I think having a four star 2021 quarterback in Miller Moss is great. We have Davis Mills for next year and he has shown potential. I don’t think that getting a quarterback is super pressing for this upcoming class, but I do think it’s really good that having this five star offensive lineman and a defensive back are areas that have been weaker for Stanford this season. And so I guess I would like to see the class fill out more with those sort of players and then maybe Mills can show more of his full potential behind a better offensive line.

KJ: Yeah, I think I definitely like how this class is rounding out at this point. And like you said, I think the four star quarterback Miller Moss would be huge but I think a great thing for Stanford is not only do they have Mills coming back next year, we would presume, we also have Tanner McKee, who was the key recruit in the 2018 class, but he then went on a mission with LDS church, and so he’ll be back joining as a true freshman next season. He really might be the most talented Stanford passer to come through here in a long time. If it’s not him, it is Davis Mills. McKee is 6’6″, 220 pounds with a huge arm. Stanford beat out Alabama, Texas, Texas A&M and Washington to get this guy and obviously because he goes on a mission right after he signs, not necessarily a guy that people remember. But when he gets back on campus, I think he’s going to turn a lot of heads. And he’s pretty much another member of the recruiting class for next year. And at the same time, I think Myles Hinton is a really huge get for Stanford because we’ve seen offensive line depth is a huge problem. And he’s a five star according to Rivals and one of the top three offensive tackles in this entire class. I do think, though, that they need to emphasize filling out more depth on the offensive and defensive lines. You know, it’s great to have some guys like Hinton or like Foster Sarell and Walker Little, but any offensive linemen can go down any week so you just have to have that next man up mentality and the personnel to execute that mentality. I think, right now, Stanford is down to six healthy offensive linemen. That is a totally unsustainable situation. Obviously, they’ve been bit harder by the injury bug in that department than any team in the country, but there’s really no excuse for not having enough offensive linemen on campus to field a successful unit. So I think they would love to sign three or four offensive linemen in this class, maybe two or three defensive linemen, because I think one area where Stanford has had a bit of a drop-off in recent years is that we haven’t seen as many truly elite defensive linemen like Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips, who just completely changed the game from the D-line. Something that almost every national championship contender has is a great defensive line. So more depth, more elite talent on the D line, and then I’d be really happy with this class. It’s already looking really good.

SR: Yeah, I agree. It’s really great to see that we’re recruiting some offensive line depth: Myles Hinton is great, Connor McLaughlin out of Florida, also looks awesome. There’s also an offensive guard out of high-school powerhouse St. John Bosco, Drake Metcalf; it’s great to see that Stanford is investing in the offensive line. To your point though, King, there’s only one commit in the 2020 class among the defensive line. That’s really concerning for a team that’s looking to seriously boost its strained ability to stop the run and create pass rush. It’s great to see offensive line depth, but this team’s really going to be hurting for some more defensive line depth in the next few years.

DMK: And you mentioned Tanner McKee, on a two-year mission in Brazil right now. Back in his day on the Farm, Shaw took a class in Portuguese. You know who he took that with? Tiger Woods. One last thing before we go. I just want to mention that the IM League schedule has been put out and the Ink Bowl practices are getting started. I’m really excited to end this three-year losing streak we’re on right now. This year we’re taking it really seriously. We have our first matchup Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. against Twaining Gibbous.

David Shaw ’94 (left) and Tiger Woods (center), former classmates at Stanford, met before this season’s game against UCF. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

KJ: Cal, if you’re listening to or reading this, and I’m not talking about the Cal football team, I’m talking about the Daily California football team. You will never see a team more prepared, more motivated, more physical or tougher. You will never see a scarier team than this Stanford Daily Ink Bowl team we’re going to put out on the field on Nov. 23. In either Roble or Wilbur Field, somewhere on one of the many grass areas at Stanford. I’m telling you, if you write for the Daily California, I think you need to drop the section before that game because you do not want to have to come out against this team. We’ve got a lot to prove. I’ve got a wrist to avenge. And this is definitely going to be the marquee matchup on that weekend. Forget about Big Game. The Ink Bowl is where it’s at.

SE: We’ve got our blockers hitting the gym. They are on strict protein-heavy diets. I would be terrified if I was a writer for The Daily Californian.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu and Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ 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.
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.