Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 7-3 Stanford

November 16, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 16, 2017

Being somewhat superstitious, and definitely a creature of habit, when Stanford hosted the Washington Huskies last Friday night, I went to watch the game at the same venue where I saw the Cardinal’s tenuous 15-14 road win over Oregon State in October. This is also the same place where I watched Stanford’s bruising 30-28 win at WSU in 2015 and the team’s amazing 26-20 home upset of second-ranked Oregon in 2013, so I guess it’s got a good pedigree.

• The Bad 

It really isn’t easy to find things to criticize in an upset of a top-10 team. But fine, since you asked…

As noted yesterday, after Washington narrowed the score to 30-22 late in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal had an opportunity to put the game away with just a field goal. Instead, the offense faltered following Bryce Love’s final rush of the game, which went for 35 yards and benefited from a 15-yard facemask penalty on the defense.

The Cardinal’s subsequent three plays went as follows:

• 1st and 10, Washington 33: Trevor Speights 2-yard rush.

• 2nd and 8, Washington 31: Speights 2-yard rush.

• 3rd and 6, Washington 29: Speights minus-1-yard rush.

I’ve been harping all year about how Stanford lacks a rushing threat to complement Bryce Love. That proved true last week as well: The Cardinal’s second-leading runner was sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello, who gained 26 yards on five attempts, including an 18-yarder in the final seconds of the second quarter. The only other player to record a carry for the Cardinal, Speights, ended up with six yards on that number of attempts.

Love was magnificent against the Huskies, but it’s unlikely that he can do it alone against Notre Dame or a bowl opponent. Consequently, Stanford’s continuing failure to develop a complementary ground weapon is this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly 

Speaking of Costello, he was largely on point against Washington, completing 16 of 27 throws for 211 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

My sole complaint about Costello’s performance concerns his failure to distribute the ball. Seven Cardinal made receptions, but only three had more than one: junior wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was five for 130 yards, fellow junior wide receiver Trenton Irwin also had five catches for 46 yards, and freshman wideout Connor Wedington had two receptions for a measly eight yards.

At least as damning is the fact that the only Cardinal tight end to make a catch was freshman Colby Parkinson, whose reception went for 10 yards and a first down. Stanford has a strong tight-end group, and it’s baffling that the unit has only 42 receptions against 110 for the rest of the team. That’s especially true given that Costello is inexperienced and the team’s previous starter, Keller Chryst, was not particularly adept at deep throws.

It’s also bewildering that Cardinal running backs have only 12 catches, given that Love is obviously capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. (In only his second collegiate game, against Central Florida, he had a 93-yard touchdown reception and another catch that went for 42 yards.)

By this point, you know what you’re about to read: Stanford’s failure to target running backs and tight ends consistently is The Ugly.

• The Good

Man, what else can you say about Bryce Love? Although still suffering the aftereffects of what was apparently an ankle injury, he had three touchdowns and 166 yards against one of the nation’s top defenses. Costello, as noted above, was also superb, and Arcega-Whiteside set a new career high with reception yardage.

The offense held the ball for more than 36 minutes against Washington. That bumped its average time of possession up to 29 minutes and 42 seconds, good for 71st in the nation and fifth in the league. Furthermore, the offense converted 10 of 18 third downs.

However, as impressive as these feats were, I can’t in good conscience give this blog’s top weekly honor to the offense, or to any member of it. Instead, it’s time to recognize the much-maligned Cardinal defense.

Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s personnel prevented Washington from converting their last six third downs. They limited the Huskies, who were a league-leading 47.2 on third down, to 2 of 8 conversions for the game. The Dawgs also went 0 for 2 on fourth down against Stanford and had only 325 yards on offense, significantly below their season average of 413 yards per game.

Two Cardinal defenders in particular were magnificent. Junior free safety Frank Buncom had a game-high 11 tackles (eight solo), while senior inside linebacker Bobby Okereke was right behind him 10 tackles (seven solo). Both players forced a fumble, while Okereke had two sacks for 27 yards and two other stops behind the line of scrimmage. Buncom and senior linebacker Joey Alfieri combined to hold Washington’s Myles Gaskin to no gain on a crucial fourth-down play at the Cardinal 18-yard line early in the second quarter.

It wouldn’t be fair to single out a player for their work against an offense that tore apart Stanford for 44 points and 424 yards last year in Seattle. Instead, I enthusiastically declare the Cardinal defense’s inspired effort against the Huskies on Friday to be The Good.

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