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

October 13, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 13, 2017

There was no real excitement concerning my game-watching circumstances on Saturday evening. I played some pinball and then walked over to my usual spot, where the “drama” consisted of trying to find the Stanford-Utah football broadcast because it had been shunted from Fox Sports 1 to Fox Business News due to the Kansas State–Texas game running long.

One other “point of interest” — this was the first Pac-12 meeting between the Stanford and Utah football teams that I’d seen on television. (Or indeed, in any live or semi-live form.)

• The Bad 

Last week’s The Bad took Stanford to task for its third-down conversion rates, both on offense and defense. I’m happy to report that the defense — despite playing a rather nerve-wracking bend-and-almost-break style at Utah on Saturday evening — stepped up, allowing the Utes to renew the downs just six times in 14 chances. The offense, alas, was simply woeful, as they refreshed the downs on only four of 13 opportunities.

Initially, I was going to label the offense’s third-down effort as this week’s Bad. However, after reviewing conference statistics, I noticed that the Cardinal defense is still stuck in 11th place in the league with an opponent third-down success rate of 45.9 percent. Since the Stanford offense is mired in mediocrity at eighth place (41.8 percent), both units must be called out. For the second week running, on both offense and defense, third-down conversion rates are hereby deemed The Bad.

• The Ugly

I’ve bellyached repeatedly about the Cardinal’s lack of a rusher to complement Bryce Love, and that concern still holds true: Love netted 152 of the team’s 196 yards at Utah. The rest of the Cardinal’s ground yardage came from starting quarterback Keller Chryst (four carries, 23 yards, one touchdown), backup QB K.J. Costello (2-19) and running back Cameron Scarlett (three carries, five yards). Again, this won’t do against a top-notch opponent such as Washington or Washington State — and indeed, it nearly didn’t suffice against a strong second-tier team like Utah.

However, here at MEMwrites, I’m all about trying not to repeat myself (too much). So let’s focus on something else: Time of possession. One reason that the Cardinal defense has been so choppy is that they haven’t been getting the rest that comes when its counterpart mounts extended drives that regularly eat up five or more minutes. 

Time of possession and third-down conversion rates are related, of course, so you’ve already surmised that this number isn’t too pretty. After six games, Stanford’s offense is holding the ball an average of 28 minutes and 16 seconds a game, ahead of only UCLA and Oregon State in the league. Nationally, the Cardinal ranks 95th in this category, right between Notre Dame and Kansas.

How much of a departure is this figure from recent years? I’m glad you asked, reader! Over the past four seasons, Stanford ranked in the top 30 once, the top 20 twice and the top one once. (The Cardinal held the ball for a nation-leading 34:48 in 2016.)

Time of possession, of course, can be a misleading statistic; as Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks teams used to demonstrate on the regular, it’s possible to hold the ball for only 20 minutes or so a game and still win 10 or more games a season.

That said, the Ducks were built around a very different type of football. Time of possession, by contrast, is integral to the Stanford brand of intellectual brutality. Therefore, I declare the team’s inability to control the ball to be The Ugly.

• The Good 

Love was his usual Loveian self against the Utes. Yes, his 152 ground yards against Utah were just over half of the 301 he tallied the previous Saturday against Arizona State. But let’s be real: Not only was Love playing on the road, he was facing the No. 10 rushing defense in the nation, which had previously allowed just 87 yards per game.

On the other hand, the Utes hadn’t exactly faced murderer’s row. Their first four opponents had a combined record of 1-11 against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. And as I’ve already stated, here at MEMwrites, I’m all about trying not to repeat myself (too much). Love has been The Good twice in the early going, so who or what else deserves this coveted slot?

Jet Toner certainly merits a nomination. Although he had his first missed field-goal attempt on Saturday, he’s still 12 of 13 on three-pointers and perfect on all 26 of his extra points. His field-goal percentage of 92.3 is tied for second in the league. (Utah’s Matt Gay has hit 94.1 percent of his attempts; Toner is tied with Washington State’s Erik Powell.) Nationally, Toner is seventh, again trailing Gay and tied with Powell; the five players ranked ahead of this Pac-12 trio are all perfect, but none of them has kicked more than nine times.

Also deserving of consideration is Justin Reid, the junior strong safety who led the team with six solo tackles. Reid also had two assisted tackles, snagged one of the squad’s two interceptions, and made a stop behind the line of scrimmage.

However, I will instead give this award to a dark-horse candidate: The Cardinal offensive line. No, their effort Saturday night wasn’t up to the caliber we’ve seen in past years — witness the lackluster third-down conversion rate, the continued lack of a complementary rusher and the weak time of possession.

But look at two other factors, tackles-for-loss and sacks. Yes, the Utes defense stopped Love behind the line of scrimmage five times, and they also stopped Scarlett for a loss once. Yet those results came against a heavily stacked defensive front, and still the line managed to spring Love for a few long runs. Moreover, the line surrendered zero sacks.

Work remains to be done, true. But in the interests of encouraging a vital position group, I deem the O-line’s performance to be this week’s The Good.

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