Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 9-3 Stanford

November 29, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 29, 2017

After Stanford was thoroughly routed in Seattle last fall, I took a meandering walk around the Durham Bulls baseball stadium. I covered more than two miles over the course of nearly 40 minutes. I was rather perturbed, and I needed to calm myself down.

After Stanford took down Notre Dame to close out the regular season with a resounding 38-20 victory, I rambled around a similar area, this time going nearly 2.6 miles in about 41 minutes.

I was very happy, and I needed to get rid of some excess energy.

• The Bad 

In general, Stanford’s defense does not put up pretty numbers, especially in terms of yardage. Against the Fighting Irish, Stanford surrendered 415 yards on 73 plays, an average of 5.68 yards per snap. On the season, the Cardinal is allowing 390.2 yards a game (5.75 ypp).

That’s good for fifth in the Pac-12 and 61st in the nation out of 129 teams, just a tick above mediocre. To put the 2017 Cardinal’s total defense in context, I looked at the team numbers in that category over the last 11 years — the same exercise I conducted last week.

This proved rather illuminating. 390.2 yards allowed is the third-worst result of the Stanford football renaissance, behind only the 435.5 ypg conceded by the 4-8 team in 2007 and the 402.7 allowed by the 8-5 squad in 2009.

Say it with me: The Stanford defense’s yardage generosity is hereby labeled this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly 

Stanford’s offense fell short on all seven of the third downs that it faced over the first three periods of the game. Granted, the unit’s first conversion came in style: 74 seconds into the final quarter, sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello hit sophomore tight end Kaden Smith for a 19-yard touchdown that put the team back ahead of Notre Dame, 24-20.

Two possessions later, on third and 5 at the Irish 13, Bryce Love ran for 10 yards. But that was it: On the night, the offense finished a paltry two of 11 on third downs and had five three-and-outs.

Stanford has converted only 41.2 percent of its third downs on the season, which ranks ninth in the league and 56th nationally. This inconsistency, both against Notre Dame and the course of 2017, is certainly fit to be named this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

Costello had a fine night against the Irish, throwing for a career-high four touchdowns — something a Stanford quarterback hadn’t accomplished since Kevin Hogan did it against the Irish two years ago. He completed 14 of 22 throws for 176 yards, giving him 1,169 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions in nine games this season.

Costello has to take a back seat, however, to two aspects of the Cardinal defense.

One of these involves turnovers. Stanford is 11th in the nation with 24 takeaways on eight fumble recoveries and 16 (!) interceptions. The team’s turnover margin is plus-14 thanks to four lost fumbles and six picks, which ranks fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Those numbers indicate stellar play by the defense, thanks in no small part to defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and defensive backs coach Duane Akina.

(Incidentally, since 1951, Stanford passers have never thrown fewer than six picks, which the team did in Andrew Luck’s freshman year in 2009.)

But perhaps even more notable is the defense’s stinginess when it comes to allowing points. The team has allowed 248 points, or 20.7 points per game, which ranks 25th nationally.

That’s not close to being a team record; nine Stanford squads have allowed fewer than 16 ppg. But it’s a sign that the defense has done its part in keeping the Cardinal competitive. In fact, the defense has surrendered more than 24 points just twice — in the 58-34 blowout home win over UCLA and in the 42-24 blowout road loss to USC.

In other words, thanks to the defense, Stanford has had a solid opportunity to win 11 of the 12 games that it’s played so far this year. Thanks to them, and thanks to Washington’s victory over Washington State in Apple Cup, the Cardinal now has a chance to win the Pac-12 title… by beating USC.

So here’s to Cardinal defenders. Sure, they give up yardage aplenty, but they keep opponents on a strict regiment when it comes to points. That miserly quality, of inestimable value to any successful football team, is this week’s The Good.

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