By King Jemison
Stanford football (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) completely changed the narrative of its season in a 23-13 win over Washington (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) on October 5th. Before that monumental home triumph, the Cardinal had a losing record, and their only wins came over two teams with a combined two victories. Stanford looked to be nothing more than a Pac-12 bottom-feeder who might sneak into bowl eligibility, best-case scenario. Instead, the Cardinal proved that they can still compete with the best teams in the conference.
This week, however, they do not have to, as Thursday’s opponent, UCLA (1-5, 1-2 Pac-12), is definitely not one of the best teams in the conference. But if Stanford is to achieve bowl eligibility, and perhaps even more, a win over the Bruins is an absolute necessity.
The Cardinal might have to get that win with their third-string quarterback. Senior QB KJ Costello will be out for the third consecutive week, and junior signal-caller Davis Mills is questionable after exiting the Washington game in the fourth quarter. That would leave sophomore Jack West under center.
Head coach David Shaw indicated this week that the sophomore QB has taken the majority of first-team reps over the long bye week, so the team appears to be planning to win with West. The former four-star recruit has plenty of talent, and most experts predicted that he would end up at Alabama. Instead, he made the long trek west from Mobile, Alabama, to Stanford, where he has appeared in just three games and completed just one pass for four yards. West is inexperienced and unproven. The good news is that UCLA might be the perfect matchup for a quarterback making his first start.
The Bruins have been absolutely awful for 22 of the 24 quarters they have played in 2019. The lone bright spot came in the second half of their 67-63 road win over Washington State, where UCLA exploded for 40 points in two quarters behind QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s Pac-12 Player of the Week performance. That UCLA team can compete with anybody. The UCLA team that lost to Cincinnati and San Diego State and ranks 123rd in yards per play allowed has no business winning a Pac-12 game on the road, even against a team down to their third-string QB.
This could be a desperation performance for the Bruins. Head coach Chip Kelly took Oregon to unprecedented heights in his short tenure from 2009-12, including three straight Pac-12 Championships. But Kelly’s seat grows warmer with every frustrating loss, and there are no guaranteed wins left on the schedule. Lose to Stanford, and Kelly might find himself unemployed by December.
Stanford must match UCLA’s desperation. Stanford can still scrape out a successful season if they reach bowl eligibility. This home game against the Bruins on Thursday night is the closest thing left to an easy win for the Cardinal. Here are three keys to a third-straight Stanford win with its third-string QB (probably):
1) Red Zone Efficiency
Stanford’s win over Washington could have been even more impressive if the Cardinal had taken full advantage of their scoring chances. Twice, Stanford advanced all the way to the Washington one-yard line only to settle for field goals. Twice, Stanford elected to run on first and second downs before unsuccessfully throwing on third-and-goal to bring on senior kicker Jet Toner and the field goal unit. Run-run-pass is the most predictable play-calling pattern in the game. Predictability in the red-zone leads to easy stops for the defense.
Overall in 2019, Stanford has reached the end-zone on just seven of its 19 red-zone chances. Toner has punched in field goals on ten more red-zone drives. The Cardinal do not have an overly explosive offense, so they must take advantage when they reach scoring position.
Getting stopped in the red-zone is what allows a bad team like UCLA with a bad defense to stay in the game. Even with West at QB, Stanford should be able to move the ball into the red-zone with relative ease on Thursday. The Bruins defense is surrendering a horrendous 6.9 yards per play. But UCLA is a desperate team that desperately needs a win. The Bruins will tighten up in the red-zone. Stanford has to be creative and effective in scoring position. The Cardinal need less run-run-pass and more Stanford Special in the red-zone to beat the Bruins.
2) Prioritize the Pass Rush
Stanford’s defense has been consistently inconsistent in 2019. The Cardinal allowed USC and UCF to score 45 points apiece but then held Oregon and Washington to some of their worst offensive performances of the season. The Oregon State game highlighted that inconsistency across two halves. Stanford shut out the Beavers in the first half before allowing 28 points in the final two quarters. The difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Stanford defense? Getting pressure on the quarterback.
The Cardinal have been consistently bad when they get no pressure and consistently good when they do get to the QB. Stanford got one total sack in those brutal losses to USC and UCF. Sure enough, an inexperienced secondary got torched in both games. The Cardinal racked up four sacks in the Oregon loss, however, and managed to hold future NFL first-round draft pick Justin Herbert and the Ducks offense to 21 points. In the Washington win, Stanford picked up two sacks and six additional QB hurries. Washington QB Jake Eason ran for his life, and the Cardinal shut down the Huskies. The most telling stat? In the shutout first half at Oregon State, Stanford had four sacks. In the jailbreak second half, the Cardinal had none.
Stanford’s defense is loaded with playmakers in the front-seven. Fifth-year linebacker Casey Toohill leads the Cardinal with four sacks. Junior linebacker Gabe Reid and sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker have two sacks apiece. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson must unleash those playmakers to wreak havoc in the UCLA backfield.
Thompson-Robinson, if he is healthy enough to start, has shown that he can explode for huge games like the Washington State win. But in the Bruins’ 24-14 opening loss to Cincinnati, Thompson-Robinson faced relentless pressure and ended up completing just 8 of 26 passes with two interceptions. Stanford is averaging 2.3 sacks per game. UCLA is surrendering 2.3 sacks per game. Whoever wins that battle upfront will likely win the game. If Stanford racks up sacks and QB hurries on Thursday night, the Cardinal should shut down UCLA.
3) Don’t Fall into the #Pac12AfterDark Trap
Pac-12 football has become synonymous with wild endings and crazy upsets during the wee hours of the morning on the East Coast. UCLA’s 32 point comeback and 67-63 win over Washington State might have been the most #Pac12AfterDark game of all-time. The Bruins were dead in the water heading into that game. They have been totally lifeless since. But for one glorious night, UCLA kept the West Coast wide awake well into the night with an electrifying win that briefly rekindled hope in Los Angeles.
Stanford’s win over Washington certainly qualified as a #Pac12AfterDark upset of their own. Now, the Cardinal must avoid falling into the trap of so many presumed Pac-12 favorites over the years in a conference night game. Stanford will likely trot out their third-string QB. The Cardinal are down to six healthy offensive linemen. Things could absolutely get weird in this game. Stanford is the far-better team, however, and the Cardinal should get the win… unless #Pac12AfterDark strikes again and the Cardinal are once again left yearning for bowl eligibility.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.