Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 8-3 Stanford

November 24, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 24, 2017

For the third year running, I watched Big Game at a joint event held by area Stanford and Cal alumni groups. For the second straight year, the watch party was at a sports bar in (the same) recently developed commercial center in an area that some five to 10 years ago was probably forest and/or farmland.

During the event, I won a replica of the Golden Spike, which was used to complete the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

• The Bad 

Tip of the Stanford ballcap to ace San Jose Mercury News sportswriter Jon Wilner for suggesting this item in a Wednesday post: Stanford has allowed opponents to rush for 1,889 yards in 11 games. That ranks sixth in the Pac-12 and 69th nationally out of 129 teams.

(Mind you, that number has come down slightly since Big Game, in which Cal ran for 155 yards.)

This level of performance isn’t great, obviously. But just how bad is it?

To answer that question, I looked at Cardinal football statistics dating back to the first year of the team’s renaissance — 2007, when Jim Harbaugh coached the squad to a 4-8 record. The worst two rushing defenses in that stretch came in 2007 and 2017, which allowed 169.3 and 171.7 yards a game, respectively.

The difference is even starker when you examine yards per carry. Six Cardinal defenses from 2007 through this year have given up more than 3.9 ypc. Of those, the second-worst result was 4.32 ypc owned by the 2015 unit that won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl. The worst, alas, is the 4.69 ypc of the current team.

Stanford’s next opponent, Notre Dame, is rushing for nearly 291 yards a game. The obvious possibility of catastrophe presented by these numbers leads me to declare the Cardinal rushing defense to be The Bad.

• The Ugly 

Anyone who’s watched Stanford football throughout the 2017 season can tell you that the passing attack has been hit or miss. Sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello was relatively efficient against the Golden Bears last weekend, completing 17 of 26 passes for 185 yards with one touchdown and one meaningless interception. That amounts to a rather modest 7.1 yards per attempt, which is an improvement over the Cardinal’s season-long rate of 6.9 ypa.

Again, I looked into the past 11 years of Stanford passing statistics. The exercise yielded some interesting contrasts.

Stanford’s average of 184.4 passing yards per game is larger only than the Cardinal’s results from 2008 (152.2 for a team that went 5-7) and 2016 (158.2 from a 10-3 squad). Turn to yards per attempt and the 2017 squad ranks above three teams: 2007 (6.0), 2008 (6.4) and 2016 (6.7). Not great, obviously.

On the other hand, Costello, previous starter Keller Chryst and backup Ryan Burns (who threw for a score in the season opener against Rice) have combined for a touchdown to interception ratio of 14:6, or 2.3. That beats the 19:10 and 21:10 ratios of the 2012 and 2013 conference championship teams. This number’s squarely in the middle for the past 11 seasons, which includes nine teams with winning records and only three finishes worse than a tie for second in the Pac-12 North Division.

Of course, “squarely in the middle” is hardly the standard that Cardinal football has aspired to since Harbaugh and Shaw began roaming the sidelines. Therefore, I deem the Cardinal passing attack to be this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

Statistically speaking, Bryce Love wasn’t the most accomplished running back on the field in the 120th Big Game. That honor goes to the Golden Bears Patrick Laird, who rushed for 153 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, with a long gain of 47. Cal’s redshirt junior running back also caught four balls for 47 yards, including a 20-yard reception, giving him an impressive 200 all-purpose yards.

Love, by contrast, racked up 101 yards on 14 carries and had a single reception, for two yards; he also had a single touchdown, just like Laird.

Granted, Cal’s defense is not great. On the other hand, Love has been battling a sprained ankle since the Oregon game, back on Oct. 14. The injury caused him to sit out the Oregon State game and has limited his action since; the tailback limped off the field at least once against Cal and at least three times against Washington. His status for the Notre Dame game is uncertain.

Love has played courageously ever since getting banged up against the Ducks. Without his performance last Saturday, it’s easy to imagine the Bears going home with the Stanford Axe.

Love is a game-changing player, possibly the best in college football. For his gritty effort against Cal, I once again declare Love to be this week’s The Good.

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