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Football Roundtable: Will Costello’s return save the season?

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Stanford is back at .500 after a gutsy win over Arizona. The Wildcats outgained the Cardinal, but the return of K.J. Costello ignited the offense towards 41 points and Paulson Adebo sealed the game with a pair of interceptions. Two weeks ago, Colorado led for 42:34 against USC, but the Trojans scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the lost momentum translated over to the next game, with UCLA jumping on Colorado 17-0 in the first quarter and seeing out the game. Stanford is traveling to Boulder to face a team winless in its past five, but with an opportunity to exceed expectations on Homecoming. Both teams are in dire need of a win to maintain hope of bowl eligibility. The Daily’s King Jemison, Sally Egan and Shan Reddy talk Costello’s return, facing Montez and leadership.

Stanford is ranked 11th in the conference in scoring offense and yards per game. The passing attack in yards per game is 11th and in yards per attempt is tied for 11th. The rushing game is tenth in yards per game and 11th in yards per attempt. Somehow, last game, Stanford scored 4.51 points per drive compared to its season average of 1.77. The most notable change from past weeks was the athlete under center. Is Stanford’s offense really different with K.J. Costello back at quarterback?

King Jemison (KJ): The offensive explosion against Arizona almost seemed like Stanford swapped their 2019 offense for the 2015 unit that scored nearly 40 points a game and won the Rose Bowl. After all, it was a throwback Homecoming Saturday. 

Stanford’s offense looked like an entirely different team against Arizona than it had in a woeful showing against UCLA just nine days earlier. K.J. Costello had a lot to do with that. It might be easy to forget thanks to his injury-riddled start to this season, but Costello was the most efficient quarterback in the Pac-12 last season. Many NFL Draft experts predicted that he would land in the first round of the 2020 Draft. After Costello’s 322-yard and three-touchdown performance against the Wildcats, those first-round draft pick dreams might be back on the table for the gunslinging senior. 

But I do not want to get too carried away by an offensive outburst against Arizona. The Wildcats have the worst defense in the Pac-12. Stanford’s 472 total yards were actually under the 481.2 average surrendered by this horrible unit. In other words, in a game where they allowed 41 points, Arizona actually had an above-average defensive performance. So Stanford fans really can not take too much from a strong showing against the Wildcats. Perhaps the offensive struggles for the Cardinal are solved. Perhaps they are not. But the good news for the Stanford offense is that Colorado is ranked second-to-last in total defense for the Pac-12. It could be another fun week. 

Sally Egan (SE): After the UCLA game, where the utter lack of experience at quarterback shone brightly, it was a relief that Costello came back not only competent, but also able to play an entire game of above-average football against Arizona. This was arguably the best game of the season for the offense, with Costello tossing for a season-high 322 yards and three touchdowns, Cameron Scarlett rushing for two touchdowns, and Simi Fehoko hauling in 97 yards and two touchdowns. 

However, as King pointed out, let’s not overpraise that performance. Arizona’s defense is ranked 125th out of 130 teams in the FBS. It would be concerning if a veteran quarterback like Costello hadn’t put up decent numbers against that dumpster fire. Luckily, Colorado’s defense is 124th, priming Costello and the Cardinal for another stats-padding game. There’s no problem with that; however, I don’t think we will see for sure if Costello is truly a game changer until the Big Game.

Shan Reddy (SR): With the exception of a weak outing against USC in his first start of the year, junior Davis Mills had incredibly strong performances in his brief stint as the Cardinal’s signal caller. After putting up three touchdowns and 245 yards through the air against Oregon State at home, Stanford fans couldn’t help but doubt the sustainability of his play; after all, the Beavers haven’t had a serviceable defense in years. But Mills came back the next week and upset the No. 15-ranked Washington Huskies in Stanford Stadium, throwing for 293 yards and a touchdown with an impressive 89.7 QBR to boot.

Though Mills has had a limited sample size, he’s shown more consistency than Costello, who’s been up-and-down in his limited playing time this season. After a strong opener against Northwestern in which he put up a 77.3 QBR, the mark dipped down to 36.8 against UCF, and then a shockingly bad 18.8 against Oregon before Costello returned to form with a 76.3 QBR against a terrible Arizona defense. 

One has to wonder if Shaw and the offensive staff are making the right call here. Mills has taken full advantage of his limited playing time, putting on solid performances against Oregon State and Washington, the latter of which was the best win Stanford’s earned all season. Meanwhile, Costello’s been inconsistent, and has only played well against weak defenses.

Nonetheless, this weekend’s game won’t show much; the Colorado defense is horrendous and both Costello and Mills could tear it up. As Sally pointed out, we probably won’t get a better idea of whether or not Shaw and company made the right call until the Big Game.

Quarterback Steven Montez has started 36 games for the Buffs, the second-most in program history. Nevertheless, after a tough year, and a recent poor stretch of play, Colorado media is calling for the end of the fifth-year senior’s tenure. At the same time, Montez accounted for both of the Colorado touchdowns in the disappointing loss to UCLA, and is now tied for the most in school history. Should Stanford be worried about the experience Montez brings to the game, or are there other threats on offense more critical to the defensive game plan?

KJ: The scariest thing about this Colorado offense is their trio of dangerous wide receivers. Laviska Shenault Jr. came into the season as the most highly touted wide receiver in the Pac-12. He has largely been held in check, but he did explode for 172 yards against USC a couple weeks ago. And where Shenault has struggled, Tony Brown and KD Nixon have really picked up the slack. Nixon single-handedly carried the Buffs to an early season win over Nebraska with nearly 200 yards receiving, and Brown leads Colorado with 624 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019. Any one of those guys can explode in any given game. Montez is a competent quarterback who occasionally delivers a spectacular performance. But the key to slowing down the Colorado passing attack has nothing to do with the senior signal-caller and everything to do with his speedy receiving targets. 

SE: Experience is important in big, pressure-cooking games, like the college football playoff or another New Year’s six bowl. As much as I wish Stanford-Colorado was a game with playoff implications, at this point, both teams are likely secretly starting to look to next year. In a game like this, pure talent is going to matter more, and Montez isn’t the most talented player on the Buffs. As King stated, Laviska Shenault came into the season with arguably more hype than any other Pac-12 player besides Justin Herbert. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype and has a few more games before the draft to prove he is worth a high pick. With Colorado’s remaining games coming against Utah and Washington, and Stanford’s defense being less exceptional than usual, this may be Shenault’s easiest remaining game to try to create some highlights. If I was Stanford, I would be much more worried about the speed of Shenault and the other receivers than the experience of Montez.

SR: Montez was wildly overhyped by draft pundits nationwide this past offseason. He’s got a great arm and nearly three full years of starting experience, but that experience hasn’t shown up much on tape over his past few games. In games when Montez was sacked twice or more this season, he’s averaged a QBR under 40. He’s highly susceptible to pressure, and against a Cardinal defense that ranks 11th in the NCAA in sack yardage among teams that have played eight games, Montez will have to have an uncharacteristically poised game to have a chance this Saturday. 

Stanford’s only road win of the season came on a last-second field goal from Jet Toner. The other two away games, at USC and at UCF, were decidedly less pretty for the Cardinal. Now, Stanford will head away from the farm for two straight weekends, beginning with this trip to Boulder. In hostile environments, there is value in having players such as Toner upon which to rely. Obviously, Toner’s season-ending injury will reduce his impact on the game, but Stanford has other leaders. Who can Stanford turn to when the going gets tough?

KJ: Stanford will miss Toner if this game comes down to a last-second field goal, which it very well might, although freshman punter and kicker Ryan Sanborn has filled in admirably for Toner with a thus-far perfect record on extra points and field goals. But the real leader that Stanford must rely on in Boulder is K.J. Costello. He is the emotional leader of this team, and they really missed his fiery presence as much as his right arm while he was out. Costello can be streaky, but he can undoubtedly put the offense on his back and carry them to victory, as he did against Arizona and so many times last season. Defensively, fifth year outside linebacker Casey Toohill is the clear quarterback of the defense (even though he is not an inside linebacker). He leads the team with five sacks and sit at second with 44 total tackles. Toohill provides the veteran leadership that this relatively young Stanford defense so desperately needs. If Costello and Toohill play well on Saturday, the Cardinal should be just fine even in a tough (and possibly very cold) road environment. 

SE: Offensively, I agree with King. As inconsistent as Costello has been this season, he is still a fifth-year senior, multi-year starter and, as the quarterback, the unquestioned face of the offense. Guys like Cameron Scarlett and Colby Parkinson may have played more steady football this year, but Costello is at the head of it all. Defensively, there’s a few more candidates. Paulson Adebo leads the backfield with four interceptions, but isn’t in the thick of things up front. Again, King is right that Toohill is certainly one of the leaders of the front line, though Gabe Reid and Jovann Swann also are experienced players that the Cardinal will lean on when things get tough.

SR: The only consistent thing about the Stanford offense this season has been the running game, and the centerpiece of that attack has been Cam Scarlett. Even in Scarlett’s worst game this season, the team still took advantage of their deep running back group to rack up 78 yards on the ground on 19 carries, a 4.1 yard-per-carry average. Against a Buffs team that ranks 70th in the nation in rushing defense, Scarlett and freshman Austin Jones will control the pace of the game. Scarlett is averaging 87.5 yards per game this season; look for him to have a career day this Saturday rivaling his 151-yard performance against Washington early last month.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘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.