Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 4-3 Stanford

October 24, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 24, 2016

I should have taken my own suggestion.

On Saturday, I contemplated going on a long walk prior to Stanford’s kickoff against Colorado. Instead, I took the lazy route and lounged about my house before walking one mile so I could take care of an errand right before kickoff. Later, as the second half was getting under way, I walked about three-quarters of a mile from a residential area where I parked my car to an establishment in Durham’s Brightleaf district.

So I did not embark upon anything close to a 58-minute, 3.7-mile walk — and perhaps as a consequence, my superstitious self tells my supposedly rational brain, the Stanford football team turned in a thoroughly inept 10-5 loss to Colorado. Blecch.

• The Bad

This offense, man. As I wrote yesterday, the five-point output — two of which, of course, were generated by a safety — was Stanford’s lowest scoring total in any game since Sept. 29, 2007, when No. 23 Arizona State pounded the Cardinal, 41-3.

As I also wrote yesterday, Stanford converted only five of 14 third downs against the Buffaloes.

Oh, and quarterback Ryan Burns’s performance? 16 for 29, 170 yards, no touchdowns, three (three!) interceptions and, essentially, two fumbles. He was involved in three (three!!!) turnovers in the final 11 minutes of play. Burns did not connect on a single deep pass.

After the final interception, on a fruitless pass to Michael Rector as he zipped upfield, Pac-12 Network analyst Glenn Parker commented, “Every go route that was thrown was underthrown today by Burns. He didn’t go over the top with a single one… You gotta put it where your guy has a chance.”

Look, I don’t want to pin all of the offense’s woes on Burns. But the turnovers and the paucity of scoring are unacceptable.

No two ways about it: Unless and until it can start producing touchdowns, Stanford’s offense is The Bad.

• The Ugly

To be honest, I kind of struggled to find anything to categorize as The Ugly. However, I then realized that the Cardinal offensive line and running game continue to qualify for this status, just as they did last week.

We know the ground attack can be good. McCaffrey rushed for 126 yards, 172 yards and 138 yards in Stanford’s first three games. Bryce Love, who sat out the season opener with an injury, had 51 yards in back-to-back games against both USC and UCLA before carving up Notre Dame earlier this month for 129 yards on 23 carries.

Saturday’s rushing offense was mostly — but not entirely — bad. Christian McCaffrey returned to the field after sitting out the Notre Dame game and carried 21 times for 92 yards, a respectable average of 4.4 yards per carry. (He also made two catches for 26 yards and lost four yards on a punt return.) Love had just three carries, but one of them covered 21 yards.

So that’s promising. However, Burns was sacked three times, and that — along with yardage connected to the lost fumble on a fourth-quarter center-QB exchange — counts against the running game. The bottom line: Stanford rushed 33 times and netted 93 yards, good for a measly average of 2.8 yards per rush. That will not do, friends.

We saw an impressive — or at least generally competent — Stanford rushing attack not two weeks ago vs. Notre Dame. And the offensive line should be able to afford Burns more protection from the opposing defensive front.

Because of their unrealized potential, the Cardinal running game and offensive line remain The Ugly for the second week in a row.

• The Good

For the past two weeks, I deemed the Stanford defense’s disruptive tendencies to be The Good. This week, I posit that the entire defensive unit deserves to hold that honor.

True, Colorado accumulated 359 yards on Saturday, which is not great, and 224 rushing yards — also not great. But it took the Buffaloes 49 carries to get that total, resulting in only a slightly above-average 4.6 yards per carry.

Let’s look deeper. Colorado’s longest passing play went for 19 yards; its longest rushing play for 26. In other words, the Cardinal D did a decent job of limiting big plays.

Colorado succeeded on only five of 16 third downs. Most coaches would love to see their opponents convert fewer than a third of their attempts.

Stanford’s front seven combined to sack Colorado passer Sefo Liufau five times. That’s pretty good. Solomon Thomas and Joey Alfieri had 1.5 sacks apiece, with Harrison Phillips and Peter Kalambayi each contributing an assist. (Alfieri also led the team with eight tackles.)

Moreover, Colorado entered the contest scoring 39 points per game but managed to score only 10 on Saturday afternoon. Holding a team four touchdowns beneath its season scoring average is no mean feat.

Stanford’s defense did enough to win the game; it just got let down by an anemic offense. Therefore, I wholeheartedly declare that the Cardinal defense to be this week’s The Good.

Now let us never speak of the 2016 Colorado game again.

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