Aerial attack shines for Stanford in 31-10 season-opening victory over San Diego State

September 5, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 5, 2018

The Stanford football team gave off some mixed signals as it got its 2018 campaign under way Friday evening. After the Cardinal elected to receive the ball, junior quarterback K.J. Costello and friends trotted out to start their first official possession of the year at the home 25-yard line.

However, the team burned a timeout before taking a snap. This would have been an inauspicious omen under any circumstances, but it seemed especially so since the team is working with a new offensive coordinator in Tavita Pritchard, the former Cardinal passer and ninth-year Stanford assistant coach who added play-calling to his responsibilities this offseason after Mike Bloomgreen’s departure for Rice.

Nor was the team’s first offensive snap much more comforting, as San Diego State senior lineman Anthony Luke batted away Costello’s pass on first down. But then the team seemed to settle down, as potential all-world senior running back Bryce Love ran for two yards before a Costello connection with junior tight end Kaden Smith went for 13 yards and a fresh set of downs. Love then carried for seven and two yards and senior running back Cameron Scarlett rushed for five yards on third and 1.

On the very next play, Costello threw to senior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for 21 yards, setting up first down at the Aztecs 25-yard line. Stanford seemed almost assured of a score.

’Twas not to be: Love carried for a yard, Costello threw an incomplete pass and senior receiver Trenton Irwin was unable to take a short pass to the first-down marker. That brought up junior kicker Jet Toner, whose 38-yard field-goal attempt sliced wide left.

The Cardinal defense then held the visiting offense to a three-and-out, aided by an Aztec false start and sharp play from senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill, who tackled Juwan Washington near the line of scrimmage before harassing Christian Chapman into an incomplete pass. And yet the season’s early promise would shortly seem to dissipate in almost shocking fashion.

In three plays, Love was stuffed at the line, Costello’s pass to sophomore Osiris St. Brown went for no gain and a throw to Arcega-Whiteside fell incomplete. The Aztec offense started from their own 8-yard line, which was encouraging. But Chapman, a senior quarterback, soon converted third and six with a throw to tight end Parker Houston.

And then the complexion of the game changed dramatically. Washington’s number was called five consecutive times, and the 5-foot-7 junior responded with panache. His first three runs of the possession went for 22, 10 and 40 yards, respectively; his next two each garnered four apiece, with the latter taking him across the goal line to give San Diego State a 7-0 lead.

The next score came midway through the second quarter when an oncoming freight train named Bobby Okereke prompted Chapman to fumble the pigskin out of bounds from the end zone. This play was predicated upon a 63-yard punt from senior Jake Bailey, who pinned the Aztecs at their 1-yard line.

But the Cardinal offense was unable to capitalize on this contribution from their defensive brethren. On the ensuing possession, they turned in their second consecutive three-and-out.

After a quick exchange of possessions, one of the game’s wildest sequences took place. On third and 5 at the SDSU 39-yard line, Aztec linebacker Andrew Aleki batted another Costello throw at the line. The ball popped up and was picked at the 45-yard line by defensive lineman Noble Hall, who started chugging across midfield.

But Irwin, who changed direction as soon as he saw that the ball had been deflected, raced in to make a truly phenomenal play. He stripped the ball from Hall and recovered it at the Cardinal 48-yard line.

Because the teams had swapped custody of the pigskin in the course of the play, Stanford was granted a fresh set of downs with 69 second left in the half. Costello made consecutive throws to Love, for three and 11 yards, before going over the top to Arcega-Whiteside for a 38-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left before intermission.

The score put the hosts on top, 9-7. This wasn’t a big margin, obviously, but it was better than trailing at the half, especially after a punchless offense had caused the Cardinal’s 20-17 loss at San Diego State last year.

Fortunately for the Cardinal, head coach David Shaw, Pritchard and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson are a solid group when it comes to making halftime adjustments. It showed after the break. The Aztecs offense managed just a field goal, accompanied by three punts and a failed fourth-down conversion attempt, over the course of the final 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal scored touchdowns in its first two drives of the third quarter, largely because Costello went 9 for 12 in the half. He  would end the game 21 of 31 with four touchdowns, tying his career high, and a personal-best 332 yards.

The second-half scoring seal was broken on third and 9 from the SDSU 19 when Costello noticed that an Aztec safety in zone coverage had maintained his position rather than react to a 6-foot-3 senior receiver’s inside cut. The junior slinger threw to Arcega-Whiteside for one of the easiest 19-yard scores you’ll ever see.

Following an Aztec field goal, Stanford lined up in the shotgun with four wideouts on third and 15 from their own 20. Costello, seeing that his outside receiver was likely to separate from the defensive back, stepped to his left and waited a beat while Arceda-Whiteside eked out a cushion. Costello threw the pigskin about 40 yards, high enough so that only his man could make the catch. Arcega-Whiteside hopped up and gathered in the ball as his defender fell to the ground; he then covered the remaining 39 yards between himself and the end zone as three other white-shirted backs futilely tried to catch up before he reached the end zone.

With the lead 24-10, Stanford did not rest on its laurels, as the team had an unfortunate tendency to do at times last season. In their first drive of the final period, Stanford moved 68 yards on seven plays, including a 14-yard Love run that was his longest of the game. With the ball at the Aztecs 19-yard line, Costello looked for sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson, who had lined up in the slot. The junior waited a few seconds in an immaculate pocket and then delivered the package to his 6-foot-7, 240-pound teammate, who had seven inches and at least 40 pounds on sophomore Tariq Thompson, the safety who had the daunting task of guarding Parkinson. The touchdown gave Stanford a 31-10 lead.

The defense played hungry on the ensuing series. After a 28-yard SDSU catch-and-run and nine-yard rush that set up second and 1, freshman defensive end Thomas Booker and junior end Jovan Swann sacked Chapman on consecutive plays. San Diego State punted on fourth and 20 with a little less than half of the fourth quarter to go.

They’d never touch the ball again, despite pinning the Cardinal at their own 1-yard line. Stanford ran down the clock with a seven-play, 83-yard drive that saw Costello complete three passes on three attempts for 54 yards. Arcega-Whiteside, naturally, had the longest gain, 33 yards; he finished the contest with a monstrous 226 yards and three scores on just six catches.

It’s hard to say how representative this first game will be of the Cardinal’s coming season. Shaw’s 2015 club opened with a desultory 16-6 loss at Northwestern but went on to enjoy a 12-2 campaign that concluded with a 45-16 romp over Iowa in the 2016 Rose Bowl. Last year’s squad thrashed a weak Rice team, 62-7, in the opener in Sydney, Australia, but wound up a mildly disappointing 9-5 following season-ending losses in the Pac-12 championship game and the Alamo Bowl.

Love’s final numbers in the 2018 opener — 29 rushing yards on 18 carries, three catches for 18 yards — were certainly disappointing. But San Diego State’s success containing the superback from Wake Forest, N.C., came at a severe cost: The Aztecs regularly stacked the box to guard against the run, leaving their secondary vulnerable to what may be the Cardinal’s deepest receiving corps ever.

The Cardinal, currently ranked 10th in the nation, will have an excellent measure of its potential this Saturday, when they host No. 17 USC. If the defense can hold its own and Costello shows the kind of poise and execution he displayed against SDSU, Stanford seems likely to have a very high ceiling.


Helpful links

San Diego State-Stanford team statistics — ESPN
San Diego State-Stanford box score
San Diego State-Stanford play-by-play
San Diego State-Stanford interactive box score —
Stanford 2018–19 football roster
San Diego State 2018–19 football roster
Game (and some other) tweets — @memomoment
Highlight video — Fox Sports

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