Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 5-2 Stanford

October 19, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 19, 2017

Saturday was a sports-watching day. First I went to Devine’s to watch the Yankees lose 2-1 to Houston for the second straight game in the American League Championship Series. After going home to change into Cardinal colors, I walked over to one of downtown Durham’s pinball spots to play a few games before strolling on over to my favored Stanford sports-watching spot in Durham, Tobacco Road. The evening contest’s result was much happier than the afternoon’s, fortunately.

• The Bad 

Previously on Bad-Ugly-Good, I criticized the Cardinal for poor third-down conversion rates on both sides of the ball. In last weekend’s 49-7 demolition of the Ducks, I’m happy to report, these figures were much improved. The Ducks converted 4 of 11 third downs, while the Cardinal offense was successful on a rather healthy seven of 12 tries.

In fact, Stanford performed admirably in just about every phase of the game. About the only thing to find fault with was the rushing defense: The Cardinal surrendered 276 yards on 43 carries, an average of 6.6 yards per go. That’s not great, especially since Oregon had no aerial threat to speak of: Their two quarterbacks — both appearing in lieu of the injured Justin Herbert — were abysmal, completing 5 of 13 throws for 33 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns.

Yes, Royce Freeman is very talented, but there’s not really an excuse for giving up so many yards to such a bad team. In fact, Stanford’s rushing defense has been poor throughout the season, surrendering an average of 195.4 ground yards per game, which ranks ahead of only Oregon State and UCLA among Pac-12 teams. Therefore, the Cardinal rushing defense richly deserves to be declared The Bad.

• The Ugly

I’ll be honest: Other than the rushing defense, there wasn’t a heck of a lot to criticize in Stanford’s performance against Oregon. So I’ll highlight a season-long failing that the Cardinal offense went some ways toward amending on Saturday.

To quote part of last week’s Bad-Ugly-Good:

[H]ere 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.

I’m happy to report that the Cardinal held the ball for an impressive 37 minutes and 17 seconds against Oregon. However, because of the team’s fecklessness in this regard over the first six games of the season, that was only good enough to bump the team’s average time of possession to 29:33, which is good for sixth in the conference standings and 72nd nationally.

Both of these rankings, while improved, are decidedly mediocre, especially compared with Stanford’s past performance in this regard. Therefore, the team’s season-long inability to mount clock-eating drives on a consistent basis is deemed this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good 

Bryce Love was once again superb, gaining 147 yards and two touchdowns — including a 67-yard score — on just 17 carries. You might ask: How good has Love been this season? Good question. My answer: He’s been so excellent this season that his average of 8.6 yards per carry against the Ducks seems just kind of average. Oh yeah, and he’s also (still) leading the Football Bowl Subdivision in these minor categories: rushing yards (1,387, nearly 300 ahead of the second-leading runner) and yards per carry (198.1, nearly 30 ypc ahead of the No. 2 player in the category).

Still, as I’ve written before:

[H]ere 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?

I’m so glad you asked. Let’s give a nod to last week’s winner, the offensive line, which has now gone paved the way for the team to rush for at least 196 yards in four straight games while surrendering zero sacks during that span. Let’s also salute Stanford’s defensive leader against Oregon, sophomore outside linebacker Curtis Robinson, who had seven tackles, including five solo.

Let’s also take note of sophomore wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who caught six balls for 112 yards and two touchdowns, each of which represented a career high.

However…

Arcega-Whiteside’s fantastic night wouldn’t have been possible without solid play from Keller Chryst. The senior starting quarterback was outstanding, finishing with 181 yards on 15 of 21 passing with three touchdowns and an interception. If Love remains healthy, all Stanford needs is competence out of its QB to be an extremely dangerous team — one that now, with last weekend’s upset losses by the Washington schools, now has a chance to win a berth in the Pac-12 championship game. Chryst was more than competent, and so I’m pleased to present him as this week’s The Good.

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