Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 3-2 Stanford

October 14, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 14, 2016

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance who was munching on some roughage — I believe it may have been celery. When a bit of food went down the wrong way, she started coughing and excused herself to walk around the corner to the water fountain. As the coughing persisted, a clerk came to me and asked if my acquaintance was OK. I said I thought she would be.

But as my acquaintance continued to cough, the clerk walked over to aid her. I also became alarmed and followed the clerk over. At my acquaintance’s insistence, the clerk thumped her on the back, thus restoring some natural order to her windpipe.

It was a minor incident, but afterward I found my nerves on edge and my eyes somewhat teary. Death had not made an impact on my life that day, but it had come far too close for comfort.

My acquaintance and I talked a bit about how it’s important to savor every moment, especially the good times, because you never know when your life is going to change permanently. And after the Stanford football team sustained its second ugly defeat in a row, I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind. Don’t take the good times for granted, friends, because you’ll need them to buoy your faith during the bad times.

With that in mind, here’s my second edition of B-U-G — that’s bad, ugly and good — for Stanford football.

• The Bad

Last week, when the Cardinal fell to 3-1 overall and 2-1 in Pac-12 play following the 44-6 defeat at Washington, I categorized the North Division title chase as The Ugly. This week, now that the Cardinal has fallen to 3-2 and 2-2 following a rout at home by Washington State, the division standings have been downgraded.

I struggled after the UW loss to find a scenario in which Stanford might advance to the Pac-12 championship game — a situation that necessitated the Huskies sustaining at least two conference losses. Now that both Washington schools own wins over the Cardinal, the Cardinal can kiss its chances of repeating as conference champions goodbye. And unless the Cardinal pulls itself together and runs off seven straight wins, which is possible but certainly not likely given how badly the squad has played in the past two contests, the team’s chances of getting a berth in a prestigious bowl are probably shot.

Let’s game out the division race for a moment. If Stanford wins its five remaining conference games, it would finish 7-2 in the Pac-12. If either Washington or Washington State end the season with a matching conference record, Stanford would be eliminated from contention by dint of its loss against either UW or WSU. If all three teams finish 7-2 in league, which I do not expect to happen, Stanford would still be eliminated from contention by dint of its losses to the other co-leaders.

What about Stanford finishing 7-2 while the Huskies and Cougars somehow end up 6-3? For this to happen, Washington would need to lose three of these remaining games: vs. Oregon State, at Utah, at Cal, vs. USC, vs. Arizona State and at WSU; and Washington State would need to lose three of these games: vs. UCLA, at ASU, at Oregon State, vs. Arizona, vs. Cal, at Colorado and vs. Washington.

Is it possible? Of course! Utah is good, and of USC, ASU and WSU, I could see two of those pinning losses on the Huskies… maybe. I can also envision a Cougars loss to UCLA and/or ASU, and Cal, Colorado and the Huskies are certainly capable of beating WSU.

But let’s be honest: The chances of Stanford claiming a conference title this way are, alas, only slightly better than the prospects of Donald Trump getting a halo, sprouting wings and flying to the top of Brazil’s Mount Corcovado. For these reasons, the Pac-12 North Division race is now clearly and definitively The Bad.

• The Ugly

My more discerning readers may have noticed a curious omission from this past week’s game recap: For the first time in a very long time, I did not mention Christian McCaffrey’s name. That was because, for the first time in a very long time, McCaffrey had only one notable touch.

It came late in the first quarter, on what appeared to be a broken play on third down and three to go at the Stanford 36. The junior running back started running to the right on a handoff, but as has happened all too often this year, the defensive front had clogged all of his running lanes. After a moment’s hesitation, McCaffrey cut to his left and found space to roam. He rushed for 23 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Cougars’ 41-yard line.

That single play produced more than half of the yards on that series, a 10-play, 45-yard drive that consumed four minutes and 15 seconds and resulted in Stanford’s only first-half points thanks to Conrad Ukropina’s 43-yard field goal.

Keep that in mind as you review this summary of McCaffrey’s plays from scrimmage, sorted by quarter:

• 2-yard run, 0-yard run, 1-yard run, 5-yard run, 23-yard run.

• 1-yard run, 0-yard run, 5-yard reception.

• 3-yard run

• No plays.

That adds up to a much more modest game than we’ve come to expect from McCaffrey: Eight runs for 35 yards and a five-yard catch, yielding just 40 (!) yards of total offense. Add in three kick returns for 43 yards, with a long of 19, and McCaffrey earned just 83 all-purpose yards.

This was by far McCaffrey’s least impressive game since 2014. It was partly due to an undisclosed injury that he suffered in the third quarter and partly to head coach David Shaw’s (entirely appropriate) refusal to put McCaffrey go back into the game when Stanford faced an essentially insurmountable deficit. McCaffrey is uncertain for tomorrow’s road tilt at Notre Dame.

After McCaffrey racked up an NCAA-record 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015, some reversion to the mean was likely in 2016. But this season now threatens to be a major disappointment thanks to a confluence of three factors: The focus brought to bear on him by opposing defenses, the struggles of the Cardinal offensive line, and injury woes.

Yes, the junior from Colorado still has impressive talent; yes, things could improve. But right now, McCaffrey’s performance has to be categorized as The Ugly.

• The Good

Initially, I was planning to offer the play of Ryan Burns here. As Stanford’s main quarterback — he’s attempted 104 passes, compared to 17 by Keller Chryst, and has 32 rushes, against 17 by Chryst — his overall play has been…

Well, let’s compare him to Stanford’s previous quarterback, Kevin Hogan.

Burns’s completion rate after five games is 66.3 percent, which only slightly lags the 67.5 percent that Hogan had through five games in 2015. But Hogan had significantly better numbers for efficiency (169.8 vs. Burns’s 138.5), passing touchdowns (9 vs. 5) and yardage (1,155, an average of 231 per game, compared to Burns’s 768, which works out to a little less that 154 per game). In other words, Burns’s play is mediocre and could qualify as The Ugly.

Instead, I hesitantly offer the Stanford defense’s success thus far at disrupting opponents, especially compared to this point last year. Dallas Lloyd (two picks), Frank Buncom, Noor Davis and Quenton Meeks have combined for five interceptions with 74 return yards and one touchdown. Last year after five games, Blake Martinez had the team’s sole pick, which he returned for 10 yards.

(Unfortunately, Stanford’s 2016 opponents have returned four interceptions for 85 yards, offsetting somewhat the aforementioned Cardinal picks, but still, bear with me…)

Stanford is also surpassing the prior year’s marks in sacks (14 for 82 yards) and tackles-for-loss (25 for 109). Last year at this point, the Cardinal had six sacks for 53 yards and 24 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for 93 yards, so there’s been improvement in both of those categories.

(And yes, yes, I know — opponents this year have more sacks and more tackles-for-loss than the Cardinal. But come on, man, I’m trying to focus on the defense…

(What’s that? You say that the 2016 Cardinal defense has surrendered more yards per game — 379 vs. 328 — and more points — 122 vs. 95 — than the 2015 edition? Look, man, I’m grasping at straws here…)

Anyway, with several reservations and qualifications, plus a big fat asterisk*, Stanford’s defensive propensity to disrupt the opponent qualifies…kinda… sort of… barely… as The Good.


* As in, there’s not a lot to choose from, so this is it pretty much by default.

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