By King Jemison
On Sept. 21, Stanford fell to 1-3 after a deflating 21-6 loss to Oregon. That same Saturday, Colorado moved to 3-1 with a 34-31 victory over Arizona State. The Cardinal seemed like they would be lucky to reach bowl eligibility, while the Buffaloes looked ready to contend for a Pac-12 South title.
Coming into Stanford’s road matchup at Colorado this Saturday, the Cardinal have won three of their past four games to reach 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12. The Buffs have lost their last five games and are now sitting at 3-6 and just 1-5 in Pac-12 play. The two teams are headed in very different directions. They might meet in the middle on Saturday, though. Colorado is a desperate team playing at home, and Stanford needs every win it can get to reach a bowl game before the competition stiffens down the stretch.
Stanford at Colorado might not be a college football headliner on a day when No. 1 LSU will face No. 2 Alabama. But it still means everything to both teams fighting for position in the Pac-12 pecking order. The Cardinal are looking to rebound from a nightmarish start to complete another semi-successful season under head coach David Shaw. The Buffs just want to keep their season alive. Here are three keys to a win in Stanford’s easiest remaining game that undoubtedly will not come easy.
1. Limit Laviska
Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. earned AP Preseason All-American honors and was the consensus pick for most dangerous offensive weapon in the Pac-12 coming into the 2019 season. He has not quite lived up to that lofty hype, as he sits at 530 yards through nine games after eclipsing 1,000 yards in the same time-frame last season. Still, Shenault is the kind of player who can take over a game by himself. In Colorado’s last home game, Shenault had 172 yards and a touchdown on nine catches. He also added a 17-yard rush on his lone carry. USC survived that road test with a flurry of fourth-quarter points, but if Shenault tears up Stanford, the Cardinal might not have enough firepower to keep up.
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez is a four-year starter sitting at fourth in the Pac-12 for passing yards per game. Montez is also among the least efficient QB’s in the conference, averaging just 7.0 yards per attempt. The Colorado passing game can be contained, and they do not have a particularly solid ground attack to pick up the slack. But Shenault, alongside teammates KD Nixon and Tony Brown, makes up the second-most dangerous wide receiving trio in the Pac-12 behind USC’s. Stanford’s defensive backs might still have nightmares about what those Trojans receivers did to the Cardinal. If Stanford’s defense wants to corral Colorado, the Cardinal must keep these talented Buffaloes receivers from running wild.
2. Air it out
With senior quarterback K.J. Costello finally healthy against Arizona after missing four of the first seven games due to multiple injuries, Stanford’s offense found the explosiveness it had been sorely lacking almost all season. The Cardinal are actually running the ball slightly more efficiently than they did last season with Bryce Love. Down to six total offensive linemen, however, Stanford simply can not win games on the ground. Davis Mills filled in admirably for Costello in the Oregon State and Washington games, but this has always been K.J.’s team. Now that he’s back, Shaw needs to lean on Costello and let the senior captain guide his team to an all-important road win.
Costello threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-31 win over Arizona. Stanford’s offensive outburst could be chalked up to the fact that the Wildcats rank 125 out of 130 FBS teams in total defense. This week, Costello and the Stanford offense will face a stronger defensive test. The Buffs rank 124th in total defense.
The Cardinal could have another huge day offensively, even in a tough environment like Folsom Field. But it will be on Costello and the passing game to lead the offense. Though Colorado’s defense is not good in any phase, they are a much more respectable 69th nationally in rushing defense. The Buffs weakness is in the secondary, where they are 124th in passing efficiency allowed. Every opposing quarterback smells blood in the water when they face Colorado. If Costello can be the next QB to tear up the Buffs, Stanford’s offense should score at will.
3. Turnover harness
Some teams have a turnover chain. Some have a turnover chainsaw. One team even has a turnover plank. Colorado has a turnover robe. Admittedly, a robe is far from the coolest turnover gimmick. But apparently it works because creating turnovers is one of the few things Colorado does well. The Buffs are second in the Pac-12 and 24th nationally with 15 total forced turnovers. Stanford is third in the conference and sixth nationally with just six turnovers lost. As the old adage says, “Something’s gotta give.”
On the other side of the ball, Stanford has forced just 10 turnovers in 2019, putting the Cardinal at 96th in the FBS. Colorado’s offense has turned it over 12 times this season. Colorado plays an aggressive style offensively and defensively. The Buffs turn it over a lot but force a lot of turnovers, too. That seems appropriate for a program that lets a 1,200-pound buffalo named Ralphie romp across the field before every half. Meanwhile, Stanford is notoriously conservative under David Shaw. Shaw’s teams rarely turn it over, and this season they have struggled to force turnovers as well. Sounds about right for a school that has a peaceful tree as its mascot.
Which scheme will win out? The wild buffalo? Or the steady tree? If Colorado gets the turnover robe out too many times, Stanford might wind up with a losing record in November for the first time since 2008. But if Stanford avoids turnovers and forces Colorado into a few mistakes, the Cardinal can stick a harness on Ralphie and steer the Buffaloes to a sixth straight defeat.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.