Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 4-2 Stanford

October 21, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 21, 2016

After Stanford got embarrassed in Seattle in front of a national audience on a late-September Friday night, I took a lengthy walk around the Durham Bulls baseball stadium.

This past Saturday, prior to the Stanford football team’s encounter with Notre Dame, I took an even longer walk, wandering about a residential part of Cary, N.C. As this screen capture from my smartphone’s Fitbit app shows, I covered 3.7 miles in a shade less than an hour.

Oct. 15, 2016, walk.

As you know, Stanford came away with a thrilling 17-10 road win on Saturday. So maybe I need to take a hike before every Cardinal football team for the rest of this season…?

At any rate, unlike last week, when I struggled to find any positives for the Stanford football squad, conducting this week’s assessment makes for a much more pleasant exercise.

• The Bad

In 2015, after an embarrassing 16-6 season-opening loss at Northwestern, Stanford scored 30 or more points in every game the rest of a stupendous 12-2 campaign. The Cardinal, quarterbacked by record-setting veteran Kevin Hogan, even scored back-to-back home wins of 55-17 over Arizona and 56-35 over UCLA. Stanford averaged 37.8 points a game over the entire season.

The 2016 Cardinal, my friends, is not that team. Stanford has scored 114 points en route to a 4-2 record, a very modest average of 19 points per game. This season total, mind you, is less than Stanford accumulated in its first two games in October 2015.

But the 2016 scoring total is actually rather misleading. Stanford has racked up two safeties, two interception-return touchdowns (against Washington State and Notre Dame) and a fumble-return touchdown (against UCLA), accounting for 24 points. That means the offense has scored only 90 points on the season.

And it gets worse. Despite his strange kicking yips against the Cougars and Fighting Irish, Conrad Ukropina has made seven of his 10 field-goal tries on the year, accounting for another 21 points. So in reality, Stanford has just 69 points from touchdowns, point-after kicks and two-point conversions on the year.

That’s less than 12 points a game. As The Mercury News’s Jon Wilner has noted, the Cardinal offense has scored exactly one touchdown per game over the last four games.

Therefore, Stanford’s scoring offense clearly qualifies as this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

On the one hand, Stanford’s line showed signs of improvement against Notre Dame: The Cardinal sprang Bryce Love for 129 yards on 23 carries, an average of 5.6 yards per carry, and the team as a whole ran for 176 yards on 40 tries (4.4 ypc). Bryce’s night was terrific, but the overall team rushing performance was decent at best.

On the other hand, Fighting Irish defenders sacked Ryan Burns three times, causing the quarterback to lose a fumble. Cameron Scarlett also lost a fumble on Saturday.

Thanks to season-long inconsistency on the offensive line and in the running game, these things qualify as The Ugly.

• The Good

Last week, I flirted with the prospect of categorizing Burns’s season-long quarterback play as The Good. But after comparing his numbers with those of Hogan’s in 2015, I concluded that Burns’s performance was mediocre and thus was only fit to be listed among The Ugly.

A week later, after Burns completed 10 of 19 pass attempts for 120 yards (6.3 yards per attempt), I… Well, I can’t change my mind, especially because of Burns’s aforementioned interception and lost fumble against the Irish. By my count, he’s fumbled six times on the year, losing four of them, on top of his four interceptions. He’s averaging 148 yards per game and has thrown five touchdowns on the year. Burns remains mediocre.

Instead, with far more confidence than I did last week, I humbly propose that the Stanford defense’s disruptive tendencies be considered The Good. Dallas Lloyd now has three interceptions on the season, as many as the entire Cardinal team had after six games in 2015. Against Notre Dame, both he and Quenton Meeks made picks, the latter of which went for a pivotal touchdown.

Moreover, the Cardinal sacked Irish quarterbacks four times, with Solomon Thomas combining for one and a half of those. Thomas, a junior defensive lineman, had a fine night, leading the team Saturday with 12 total stops. (By way of comparison, the team’s next leading defender was Ben Edwards with five tackles.)

Also, consider this. Despite the fact that Stanford was outscored by Washington and Washington State to the tune of 86-12 in back-to-back losses, the team has surrendered only 132 points all season. After six games in 2015, the unit had allowed 130 points.

In other words, despite two truly horrendous games, the defense has performed decently. Granted, the unit needs to shore up its performance on third downs, having allowed opponents to convert 46 percent of opportunities on the season — markedly inferior to the 2015 edition, which had allowed 40 percent of opponent tries after six games.

But as you know, this category is not The Perfect. Therefore, I deem Stanford’s defensive disruptiveness as eminently worthy of being labeled The Good this week.

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