Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 5-3 Stanford

November 4, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 4, 2016

Well, it sure felt nice to get a win, didn’t it?

Especially in Pac-12 conference play…

• The Bad

For the last two weeks running, I’ve labeled Stanford’s offensive line The Ugly because the unit’s middling-to-above-average success at opening holes for the ball carriers has been counterbalanced by its difficulties protecting the quarterback. Notre Dame, which is 108th out of 128 Division I-A teams with 11 sacks in eight games, got to Stanford’s passer three times. Colorado had an equal number of sacks in the Cardinal’s worst offensive outing of possibly the last decade.

Well, against Arizona, Stanford had 237 rushing yards, its second-best output of the year following (this may seem familiar if you read Wednesday’s game recap) the team’s effort against USC. So the O-line can no longer get labeled The Ugly — at least not this week.

However, I can condemn the offensive line’s pass blocking against the Wildcats. Arizona entered last week averaging less than two sacks a game; against Stanford, the team had four. Negative-yardage plays kill drives, and the Cardinal offense is too fragile to surrender that number on a regular basis, especially against substandard defenses.

If the pass protection does not step up — especially against a dangerous Cal squad that struggles to get to the quarterback, just like Arizona and Notre Dame — then Stanford could finish conference competition on a very bitter note. Therefore, this aspect of offensive-line play definitely deserves to be labeled The Bad.

• The Ugly 

This week, there are a number of candidates for this label. Quarterback Keller Chryst, making his debut as a starter, turned in an uneven effort, going 14 for 30 (cough!) for 104 yards, two touchdowns and a truly egregious interception. But because he helped lead the team to a win, and because he had a positive touchdown-to-turnover ratio, we’ll overlook the rougher aspects of Chryst’s performance and instead consider other possibilities.

Frankly, Conrad Ukropina is one. Although I revived his “Ol’ Reliable” moniker in Wednesday’s game write-up, the truth is that his 45-yard field goal was sliced pretty far to the left; in an alternative universe not far removed from this plane of existence, it’s easy to envision him hitting the goal post for the third time this season. Still, he made both of his attempts, enabling him to reclaim his position as the school career leader in field-goal percentage after he slipped behind Nate Whitaker for a few weeks. (He’s now 30 for 37, good for 81 percent; Whitaker hit 33 of 41 kicks for 80.5 percent in 2009 and 2010.) So I say Ukropina deserves a pass.

What about the offense’s success on third down? Against Arizona, the Cardinal converted seven of 18 tries, a modest — very modest — improvement over the unit’s five-for-14 performance vs. Colorado. But again, a victory excuses a lot of flaws, so we’ll overlook this one, at least for now.

Instead, let’s look to a quirk of Stanford’s season: That of the team’s five wins, four have come against teams that have played multiple quarterbacks against the Cardinal. (The exception is UCLA, whose Josh Rosen went 18 for 27 with 248 yards — although coincidentally, he subsequently suffered a shoulder injury that forced the Bruins to start Rosen’s backup.)

Let’s quickly run through the schedule in chronological order. Kansas State had to play Joe Hubener after starter Jesse Ertz was sideined for part of the game by injury. (Hubener’s very first play was an interception to Dallas Lloyd.) USC inserted Sam Darnold when Max Browne proved ineffective. (Darnold has since become a very solid full-time starter for the Trojans.) UCLA played Stanford to a near-standstill before the Cardinal pulled out a winWashington and Washington State walloped Stanford behind Jake Browning and Luke Falk, respectively. Notre Dame sent out substitute Malik Zaire on the third series of the second half after DeShone Kizer opened the period with a pair of interceptions. Returning to Pac-12 play, Colorado — which had already proven itself to have a capable backup — used only one quarterback, Sefo Liufau, in the Cardinal’s ignominious 10-5 defeat. And oft-injured Arizona had not two but three different quarterbacks attempt passes against Stanford: Brandon Dawkins (5 for 15, 116 yards, one TD and one interception), Anu Solomon (0-3) and Khalil Tate (0-2).

Five wins, four opposing substitute quarterbacks. A win’s a win, but if Stanford can’t count on opposing teams having bad luck — or making bad decisions — with the most important position in the game for the rest of the season.

Again looking to Cal, if Stanford can’t find a way to beat a solid opposing quarterback, then Big Game will yield a very bitter result for Cardinal fans. For this reason, we name Stanford’s difficulties against established starters as this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good 

It’s awfully tempting to award this label to Christian McCaffrey, isn’t it? He posted terrific numbers with 23 carries for 169 yards (5.6 ypc, his best average this year) and two touchdowns. His running was nicely complemented with 34 receiving yards and a touchdown on five catches and 29 yards on three punt returns; as I noted earlier this week, that comes to 225 all-purpose yards, his second-best sum of the season — and those touchdowns were his first scores in a true road game as a collegian.

But then there’s the Cardinal defense, which turned in its third outstanding performance in a row. Arizona is not exactly a scoring powerhouse; still, they came into last weekend averaging 26.1 points per game and managed only 10, more than two touchdowns below their usual standard. Moreover, the Wildcats couldn’t even live up to their anemic 36.8 third-down conversion rate, as the Wildcats succeeded only three times on 14 tries.

And defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s unit continued its disruptive ways. The Cardinal defense recorded five sacks and three additional tackles-for-loss, Ben Edwards had a pick, and Mike Tyler recovered an Arizona fumble.

Perhaps the best thing about the defense’s showing against the Wildcats was that it was truly a team effort. Five players tied for the lead in tackles with four apiece. The only solo sack came from Solomon Thomas; he, Bobby Okereke, Joey Alfieri and Harrison Phillips combined on the remaining four quarterback stops. It seemed that everyone made a contribution.

Well, everyone knows the saying — football’s a team sport. Therefore, for the second week in a row, I deem the Cardinal defense to be The Good.

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