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King’s Keys: changes on the Farm

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The Class of 2014 will return to the Farm this weekend for its five-year reunion. Many of those Stanford alumni probably haven’t watched much Cardinal football since their graduation. If they decide to attend Saturday’s Homecoming game against Arizona (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12), they might be stunned by what they see from this Stanford team (3-4, 2-3 Pac-12). 

When the Class of 2014 was on campus, Stanford went to four straight BCS bowls, including two Rose Bowls. This year, Stanford had to beat Oregon State on a last-second field goal to avoid four straight losses. The Class of 2014 witnessed the Cardinal finish every season ranked inside the AP top 15. Now, the Cardinal are merely fighting for bowl eligibility. Things have changed on the Farm. 

Stanford suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in recent program history last Thursday to UCLA (2-5, 2-2 Pac-12). The Bruins came into that game with one win in a crazy shootout affair with Washington State. They have losses to Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oregon State. UCLA’s defense ranked 123rd out of 130 FBS teams in defensive yards per play. But Stanford made UCLA look like a national title contender. The Bruins held a listless Cardinal offense to under 200 total yards and left Stanford Stadium with a 34-16 win that did not even feel that close. 

For the umpteenth straight week, Stanford faces major quarterback concerns. Senior K.J. Costello is questionable, while junior Davis Mills is officially out. Sophomore Jack West had a rough debut against the Bruins, completing just 15 of 32 passes for 143 yards. If West does indeed get the start, he will have to keep up with an explosive Arizona offense ranked second in the Pac-12 for total yards per game. 

The stage is set for another crushing Cardinal loss that would send Stanford spiraling towards its first losing season since 2008. On the flip side, a victory over Arizona might propel the Cardinal to a strong finishing kick, as three out of their final four games are very winnable. 

Stanford’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 went down the drain long ago, but there is still hope for a respectable season that would not stain the sterling reputation that the Cardinal have earned over the past decade of dominance. Here are three keys to a win that would send the Class of 2014 home with a wave of nostalgia for fall on the Farm. 

1) Contain Khalil

Mobile quarterbacks have frequently been a thorn in the side of the otherwise-stout Stanford defense. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is perhaps the most mobile signal-caller in the nation. In his breakout 2017 season, Tate ran for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns, while leading the country with an average of over nine yards per rush. Tate challenged Bryce Love for the title of most dangerous big-play threat in the Pac-12 and briefly entered the Heisman conversation. But injuries and an offensive scheme change largely derailed his 2018 season, and his rushing numbers have been fairly pedestrian in 2019 as well. Tate is averaging 3.9 yards per carry with just two rushing touchdowns. That being said, if Tate gets loose, he could single-handedly tear the Stanford defense to shreds on the ground and through the air.

UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson was the most recent mobile quarterback that terrorized the Cardinal, rushing for a career-high 66 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly for the Bruins offense, Thompson-Robinson extended plays with his legs before finding open wide receivers downfield. Stanford’s defensive line got in the backfield play after play, but DTR just kept escaping. If Tate can have similar success escaping the pocket, those 66 yards could come on one play. 

Tate is arguably the most dynamic athlete and quarterback in the country. When defenses can force him to become a pocket-passer, however, he is simply not the same. Arizona’s best win of the season came over Texas Tech, where Tate rushed for a season-high 129 yards, including a ridiculous 84-yard touchdown. Arizona has been blown out the past two games by Washington and USC. In both losses, Tate was held to negative rushing yards with an average of five sacks per game. The blueprint to beat Arizona is fairly clear: contain Khalil, or else. Stanford’s defensive line must get the pressure on Tate while staying disciplined enough to keep him in the pocket. If Tate has a field day through the air and on the ground, Arizona might break the Stanford Stadium scoreboard — it gets confused when teams score over 20 points per game.

2) Let the Wide Receivers Work

According to Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94, senior quarterback K.J. Costello is looking more likely to make his first start since the Oregon game way back on Sept. 21. Costello was the most efficient QB in the Pac-12 last year and came into the season with major NFL hype. But his senior season on the Farm has largely been a disappointment thanks to injuries and inconsistency. Hopefully, Costello can begin his comeback tour on Saturday and reclaim his position as one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Whether Costello or West gets the start, however, Stanford needs to keep it simple through the air against Arizona and allow the athletic Cardinal receiving corps to make plays. 

Arizona might have the second-best Pac-12 offense in yards per game. The Wildcats also have the conference’s second-worst defense in yards per game. They rank last by a wide margin with just seven total sacks in 2019. For context, Oregon leads the conference with 22 sacks this season. Stanford’s quarterbacks will have time to throw against Arizona, even behind three true freshman starters along the offensive line. They just have to make the easy throws and let their wide receivers do the rest. West missed open guys on short-yardage throws multiple times during his debut. If Stanford hits on those throws, playmakers like Connor Wedington, Michael Wilson and Cameron Scarlett can rack up yards after the catch. Against a struggling defense like Arizona, that should be more than enough to move the ball downfield.

3) No more injuries, please

As we discussed in the Roundtable this week, Stanford has one of the worst cases of the injury bug in college football history. The Cardinal have lost five offensive linemen to significant injuries this season. At the moment, there are seven scholarship offensive linemen available, five of them true freshmen. One or two more injuries might lead to emergency options like junior defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry or junior tight end Tucker Fisk actually having to see time on the line. Obviously, the quarterback injuries have been well-documented. Both Costello and Mills have missed multiple games with lingering injuries, leading to third-stringer West getting the start last week and possibly this week as well. The defense is also missing multiple guys at linebacker and in the secondary. Long story short, Stanford can simply not afford any more injuries. It is probably hard enough already to run practice with so many Cardinal in street clothes. 

Stanford must beat Arizona to keep its dreams of bowl eligibility alive. But in order to have any chance in their remaining four games, the Cardinal need to dispatch the Wildcats with zero casualties. 2019 has already been one of the most disappointing seasons in the past decade of Stanford football. With one more loss to Arizona or a few more injuries, the Cardinal will be penciled in for by far the worst season of the Shaw era. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.