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Costello energizes Stanford in return

Senior quarterback and captain K.J. Costello (above) returned to the starting lineup for the first time in a month. He threw for 312 yards on 30-43 with three touchdowns as the Cardinal went on to defeat Arizona 41-31. (ROB ERICSON/isiphotos.com)

After the dust settled on Saturday’s game, there were two Cardinal asking everyone in the locker room “whose house?” The first was junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, who was awarded the game ball by head coach David Shaw for his two-interception second-half performance, including one to seal the game with 12 seconds on the clock. 

“Getting two interceptions in the second half, I gave him the game ball [Saturday],” Shaw said. “That’s what big time corners do. You take too many chances on them, they’re going to get in position, and they’re going to make plays, and he was big time [Saturday].”

The second was senior quarterback K.J. Costello, who had undoubtedly his best performance of an injury-shortened season. He threw for 312 yards on 30-for-43 with three touchdowns, and while his individual performance played a part for Stanford (4-4, 3-3 Pac-12) in its 41-31 Homecoming victory over Arizona (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12), his emotional presence as a captain and leader uplifted a downtrodden Cardinal sideline from a week and a half ago to one with a celebratory mood, even before anything worth celebrating had occurred. 

“On the game [Saturday], can’t say enough about K.J. Costello, him coming back, and it wasn’t just throwing the football,” Shaw said.” Two-time captain, senior, leader, felt his energy, felt his passion, pushing guys, talking to them, giving us great feedback coming from the field.”

“That’s a veteran quarterback and a guy who’s been in a lot of different games and been in a lot of different situations, and he showed it [Saturday],” said Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin. “He was probably the best player on the field [Saturday].”

For just the second time this season, Stanford started the same offensive line in back-to-back games. The Wildcats ranked last in the conference in sacks, and for the second time this season Stanford’s quarterback escaped a game unscathed. Stanford’s offensive line includes three freshmen and just two upperclassmen and was coming off a seven sack performance.

“[Junior center] Drew Dalman is the leader in there, and Drew’s played really good football all year,” Shaw said. “We’re getting some of our best football at right tackle as well. [Junior] Foster Sarell is playing the best football of his career.”

Eleven different receivers caught passes from Costello, the rushing attack added 160 more yards and the defense got the stops it needed to slow down the potent Wildcats (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12) offense, which came into the game ranked second in the conference in yards per game. By the final whistle, Stanford was celebrating a Homecoming victory for its third win in the past four games.

Senior inside linebacker Andrew Pryts tallied a team-high eight tackles, including one for loss. For the most part, Stanford contained one-time Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate, who finished 17-for-33 for 205 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Tate also contributed 103 rushing yards towards Arizona’s total of 222, on a day when the Wildcats managed to outgain the Cardinal.

Costello faced a long road back. Last week, the senior practiced on Monday but could not return Tuesday. This week, Shaw and Costello again took it day by day.

Junior Davis Mills had been ruled out midweek, leaving a game-time decision between the captain Costello and the sophomore Jack West. 

“This past week, we tried to get past Monday,” Shaw said. “We got past Monday, crossed our fingers for Tuesday. Got past Tuesday, crossed our fingers for Wednesday.”

In the end, Costello reached Saturday, made it through pregame warmup and was announced as the starter for the first time in over a month to a jubilant Cardinal crowd.

“It seems like it’s been an eternity, man,” Costello said. “Four weeks standing on the sideline, guys going down left and right. Being one of those guys as well, it doesn’t feel good.”

On his first drive, Costello led an eight-play, 75 yard scoring drive in just under four minutes, with three completions to as many receivers on just four attempts. Inside the five-yard line, fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett took over, and two rushes later was in the end zone.

“K.J. is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” Scarlett said. “He brings energy that’s really unmatched and knows how to lead the offense and lead the team with his words, his actions and how courageous he is out there.”

“I feel a whole lot different playing than not playing,” Costello said. “I’ll challenge myself to play that way in terms of — not performance, in terms of energy for the rest of my career.”

Although it was Stanford’s sixth time in eight games scoring on the opening drive, it was just their second opening touchdown of the season. Costello misfired on his next four pass attempts, but found his stride with an 11-yard completion to freshman running back Austin Jones on third down to keep the drive alive. Costello then rattled off four more consecutive completions, finding sophomore Brycen Tremayne in the end zone on the final toss. 

“Brycen is perfectly built for that,” Costello said. “Running on a linebacker in the back of the end zone, he makes plays like that all the time. I told him he’s the guy. I want to see a lot more of that out of him going for the remainder of the season.”

Tremayne’s superb one-handed grab came on second down and represented his second career touchdown reception on just his second career reception. 

Scarlett took over for the offense on the next drive, carrying the ball four times for 12, 22, 19 and eight yards for the score. After finishing the game against UCLA with 34 yards, Scarlett surpassed the total with the one drive alone, despite being spelled for a play by freshman running back Nathaniel Peat.

The defense did not have the game, and especially the first half, that it wanted. When Scarlett dove into the end zone, it was to bring the game to 20-10 after an opening-drive Wildcats field goal with Tate under center and a touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball by Grant Gunnell. 

Running back J.J. Taylor broke through the Stanford defense for 18 yards, and one play later Tate raced for 57 yards and a touchdown. 

“Khalil Tate is going to make a couple of plays,” Shaw said. “He’s a difference-maker. A couple of long runs, one long touchdown. You chalk that one up. He’s going to do it against anybody and everybody.”

Just 26 seconds had come off the game clock since Scarlett’s touchdown, but after the extra point, Stanford found itself with its lead cut down to 21-17. Where in the past, Stanford teams have withered, Costello flourished. 

Two runs for Jones and completions to sophomore wideout Michael Wilson and junior tight end Colby Parkinson brought the Cardinal into Wildcats territory. From there, Costello hit sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko for 44 yards for the statement response.

“I think the game slowed down for [Fehoko],” Costello said. “We’ve all known what he can do. He’s done it in practice.”

“K.J. is our leader, and he gets those juices fired up,” said sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker. “He comes back after he’s scored a touchdown and says, ‘you guys gotta get the ball back,’ and I like to see that out of the quarterback.”

Although the Stanford defense was unable to make a stop on fourth down, and eventually allowed Tate to find his receiver Jamarye Joiner for an 18 yard score, Costello came back out with under two minutes to play in the half to lead another scoring drive.

Costello completed five straight and rushed 12 yards for a first down to take Stanford within field goal range. Freshman Ryan Sanborn, who was the punter until senior kicker Jet Toner’s season-ending injury last week, nailed his first career field goal, a 33-yarder, to put Stanford on top 31-24 at the break.

The defense recorded one first half sack, but Tate and Gunnell combined for 13-15 with a pair of touchdowns, and Arizona held a 8.5-8 advantage in yards per play. The Wildcats averaged an unseemly 10.6 yards per first down play and completed all eight first down passing attempts, but were held to just 1-5 on third down.

Freshman punter Ryan Sanborn (above) has assumed all kicking duties following kicker Jet Toner’s season-ending injury. Sanborn converted his first career field-goal on Saturday. (Bob Drebin/isiphotos.com)

With the return of the two-year captain, Stanford threw the ball 27 times to just 14 rushing attempts in the first half. Costello completed 19 of those passes for 223 yards as Stanford scored its most points in a half this season.

Subtle adjustments and effort limited Wildcats to seven second-half points, and strangled any idea of an ongoing shootout.

“I think all of [the position groups] worked in tandem, to create a performance that we were proud of in the second half,” Booker said.

Arizona scored on its first drive of the half, but afterwards were silenced. Taylor and Tate combined for 50 rushing yards on two carries apiece, and from nine yards out, the quarterback found Drew Dixon in the end zone.

Once again, Costello and the Cardinal offense responded with a fervor, setting the tone for the second half. Jones had a phenomenal run and Peat caught a pass for 19 yards, as Shaw continued to display his trust in his freshman running backs. Then, on the Arizona 14 yard line, Fehoko received the call for a fade route, and Costello threw it up. 

“I watched JJ [Arcega-Whiteside ’19] do it all last year and watch Colby do it all the time,” Fehoko said. “It was perfect placement, so I went up and got it.”

With the touchdown grab, Fehoko set a new career high of 97 yards, and his second touchdown of the game brought his career total to three. 

“This has been coming since the first time we saw him his sophomore year in Utah in high school,” Shaw said. “If you play underneath, he’s going to get over the top. And then when you’re up on him, he’s also got a big time vertical, big time basketball player.”

Gunnell returned as the Wildcats signal caller and brought his team to the brink of the red zone on the Stanford 21 yard line. On first down, Dante Smith was bottled up for no gain. On second down, Gunnell’s completion lost a yard. On third down, senior defensive tackle Michael Williams pressured Gunnell into Booker’s path, who strip-sacked the Wildcats freshman quarterback.

By the time that Gunnell fell on the loose ball and following a delay of game penalty, Arizona faced a fourth and 41. Pushed out of field goal range, they were forced to punt. Despite Gunnell throwing a perfect 7-7, Tate came out for the next drive, and Adebo jumped the route for an interception.

“I like to have the ball thrown my way,” Adebo said. “Hopefully I get my hands on it.”

Scarlett topped 100 yards as the offense took the ball all the way down to the one yard line. On third down, on a play Shaw said will not be repeated, a stuffed Scarlett pitched the ball backwards to Costello, who was still unable to break the goal line. Sanborn connected on the field goal, however, and the six minute drive iced the game 41-31 with just over six minutes to play.

Adebo came up with his second interception, this one to seal the game, in the end zone. Tate threw it up with 12 seconds on the clock, but chose the wrong Cardinal to test, and the preseason All-American came away with his fourth pick of the season.

Junior cornerback Paulson Adebo (above) was awarded the game ball by Shaw for his two-interception performance against the Wildcats. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

“People outside our building can panic,” Shaw said. “Fans can panic. Alumni can panic. That’s fine. We don’t.”

Now, Stanford has two weeks before it heads to Boulder for a showdown with Colorado. With the bye week, Shaw said he would cut back on practices in number, from three to two, and intensity, allowing a hobbled team to recover.

This article was originally published Oct. 26 but was updated for the Oct. 28 print issue of The Daily. 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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