Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 6-2 Stanford

November 3, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 3, 2017

In the runup to Stanford’s Thursday-night game against Oregon State, my Twitter feed was seemingly full of articles profiling Bryce Love and praising the Cardinal offensive line. Moreover, veteran San Jose Mercury News college sports writer Jon Wilner wrote, in assessing the Beavers shortly before the game:

If Bryce Love doesn’t play, or is limited, and if Stanford’s passing game sputters, and if the defense is wobbly, and if the sense of urgency is lacking … the Cardinal will only win by three touchdowns.

In other words, the universe was seemingly setting Stanford up for a major jinx in its road tilt against the worst team in the conference.

Interestingly, I viewed this contest in the same establishment near the New York-New Jersey line where, almost exactly two years previously, I’d watched Stanford stage a nationally televised come-from-behind weeknight win in the Pacific Northwest — the Cardinal’s harrowing 30-28 victory at Washington State on Friday, Oct. 31.

• The Bad 

The Stanford coaching staff knew going in that superstar tailback Bryce Love might not be available, yet the gridders ran for their lowest total of the year — less than half the 170 yards Stanford recorded in their week 2 road loss to USC. The O-line seemed sluggish as the club rushed for 81 yards, with no ground gain longer than 12 yards.

Head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren have excellent football minds, but their apparent inability to ready the offense for this game was vexing. Equally perplexing was Shawgren’s decision to let Chryst attempt to work through his doldrums. Consider, if you will, this breakdown of Keller Chryst’s performance by quarter against Oregon State:

• First quarter: 7-10, 67 yards.

• Second quarter: 2-8, 14 yards.

• Third quarter: 3-5, 26 yards, one interception.

• Fourth quarter: 4-10, 35 yards, one touchdown.

That adds up to 16 of 33 for 142 yards with a score and a pick.

However, I come here not to bury Chryst but to question what happened with the Cardinal coaching staff as they prepared for the trip to Corvallis.

Things worked out in the end, thanks in no small part to a certain Cardinal defender. (About whom see more below!) But it’s mystifying that they opted not to turn to the capable backup that they had available in sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello.

It’s worth noting, of course, that Shaw announced this week that Costello will get the start against the Cougars. Notwithstanding, the questionable coaching calls that left the Cardinal offense moribund against the Beavers collectively deserve to be labeled The Bad.

• The Ugly 

To quote part of last week’s Bad-Ugly-Good, which cited part of the previous 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.

Against Oregon State, Stanford’s offense held the ball for 27 minutes and 14 seconds. That dropped the Cardinal’s average TOP on the season to 29:16, moving the team down one notch to seventh place in that measurement in the Pac-12. Nationally, Stanford fell from 72nd to 78th place, trailing such football luminaries as Louisiana Monroe, Florida International, Buffalo, Rutgers and UNLV.

To add insult to injury, the Cardinal’s time of possession is longer by one second than that of its archival, Cal. The Golden Bears are ranked eighth in the conference and 79th in the nation. The Farm gridders’ woeful performance in this metric once again qualifies as The Ugly.

• The Good

This category is easy to determine as, alas, there were relatively few bright spots in Stanford’s narrow escape from Corvallis. Harrison Phillips led the team last week with 10 tackles, half of which were solo efforts. The defensive tackle, by far the best player in the Cardinal’s front seven,  shared a sack with defensive end Eric Cotton and recorded two other tackles-for-loss.

More importantly, Phillips played a major role in two takeaways. In the final minute of the second quarter, the senior recovered a fumble by Oregon State’s quarterback; this led to a field goal that cut the Beavers’ lead to a single point — no small matter, obviously, in a game that the Cardinal won by that exact margin.

Of course, Stanford likely would have come out on the short end of the stick if not for an electrifying play that Phillips made near the end of the game. With two and a half minutes remaining, Phillips stripped the ball from Ryan Nall and recovered it, setting up the Cardinal for what would be a game-winning touchdown drive. As Stanford superfan Go Mighty Card suggested on Twitter after Phillips was nominated for a Lott Impact Trophy player of the week award, the formidable defender saved Stanford’s season.

Thus far in 2017, Phillips leads the team in total tackles (61), assisted tackles (42), tackles-for-loss (7.5 for 29 yards), sacks (4 for 21 yards) and quarterback hurries (5). Oh, and by the way: He was the Lott Impact Trophy’s player of the week and the Pac-12 defensive player of the week for his performance against the Beavers.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly declare that Harrison Phillips’s outstanding effort in Corvallis was last week’s The Good.

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