Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 9-4 Stanford

December 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 6, 2017

I had a good time watching the Pac-12 football championship game. I just wish the outcome had been different…

• The Bad 

Stanford’s strongest defensive group is probably its secondary. Going into last week’s game, the Cardinal ranked fifth in the league in passing defense, allowing 220 yards per game and 15 touchdown receptions. As noted last week, Stanford has intercepted 16 passes, which ranked 10th in the nation.

Unfortunately, the secondary let the team down against USC — both times. Stanford surrendered 316 passing yards and four aerial touchdowns in their September loss to the Trojans; in the rematch, the unit gave up 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Trojans’ leading receiver in September was Deonta Burnett, who had 121 yards and two scores on nine receptions. This time around, Michael Pittman scorched the Cardinal secondary with 146 yards and a touchdown on only seven catches.

Stanford came close to beating USC on Friday, but that was more in spite of rather than because of the secondary. Hence, their play in the conference’s title game is this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly 

Stanford’s passing attack has been up and down all season. The Cardinal threw for more than 200 yards only three times and had fewer than 150 through the air on four occasions.

The team opened the year with its three quarterbacks throwing for a combined 369 yards and three touchdowns against Rice; two games later, facing San Diego State, Keller Chryst completed 9 of 20 passes for 72 yards with two interceptions and no scores.

When viewed in the context of the entire season, sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello had a mediocre outing against the Trojans in the conference title game. He had 192 yards, which ranks fourth among Cardinal passing marks in 2017.

But Costello had an unimpressive completion rate of 45.5 percent, as only 10 of his 22 throws were caught. This wasn’t entirely his fault — his receiving corps had at least three drops — but it certainly wasn’t great.

On the other hand, Costello threw for two touchdowns. That’s hardly earth-shattering, but it’s better than the four games in which the team failed to record a passing touchdown or the three games in which they only had one.

Thus, the Cardinal passing offense qualifies as The Ugly for the Pac-12 championship game.

• The Good

Bryce Love, still nursing a sprained ankle, finished the game with 125 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, including a 52-yard run. Two things have happened in every game over the past month: Love grew stronger in the second half, and he repeatedly limped off the field only to return soon thereafter.

Due to his injury, Love slipped behind San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny in both total rushing yards (2,027 on 275 carries against Love’s 1,973 yards on 237 runs) and rushing yards per game (168.9 for Penny vs. 164.4 for Love). But bear in mind that the junior out of Wake Forest faced better teams than Penny.

Despite battling an ankle over the last half of the season, Love’s had a more prolific rushing campaign than any other Stanford runner but one. (Christian McCaffrey’s 2,019 yards in 2015 remains the school record, at least pending the Alamo Bowl later this month.)

Moreover, Love’s average yards per carry is virtually without peer. The top season YPC in school history belongs to Dick Hyland, who averaged 11.5 yards per run in 1926 (38 carries, 437 yards). Love’s 2017 season is ranked second, at 8.3 ypc, and his 2016 campaign comes in fourth (7.05 ypc, 111-783). Andrew Luck ranks third at 8.2 ypc in 2010 (55-453); otherwise, no one has exceeded 6.6 ypc.

The numbers are even more eye-popping when you look at Stanford career marks for rushing yards per carry. McCaffrey ranks second with 6.21 ypc over three years (2014–16). Love stands alone with 8.05 ypc from 2015 through the current year.

However, I want to spotlight a player who typically gets less national love than, well, Love: Harrison Phillips. Stanford’s premiere defensive lineman finished the USC game with a team-high 13 tackles and helped sack Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold.

On the season, Phillips leads the Cardinal in four defensive categories: assisted tackles (65), total tackles (100), tackles for loss (17.0 for 58 yards), sacks (7.5 for 38 yards) and fumble recoveries (2). Phillips has also has six quarterback hurries, tied for the team lead with Jovan Swann and Peter Kalambayi, and three forced fumbles, which trails only Alijah Holder’s three.

The next most prolific tackler on the Stanford defensive line was Dylan Jackson, who had 33 total stops, eight of which were solo. Phillips had more solo tackles, 35, than Jackson had overall tackles.

Stanford was mediocre against the run in 2017, allowing about 171 yards per game, which ranked seventh in the conference, and recorded only 32 sacks, leaving it tied with Oregon for fifth in the league.

That’s not great. Still, it’s frightening to contemplate what the Stanford ground defense and pass rush would have been like without Phillips. For his excellence against USC, and for his season-long consistency, I dub him this week’s The Good.

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