Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 1-0 Stanford

September 7, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 7, 2018

I started the 2018 Stanford football season the exact same place where I ended the 2017 campaign: At a particular joint near my childhood home.

For convenience’s sake, I’ve decided to dub this spot Ye Olde Pub/Club. The “Club” part is because the establishment seems to turn into a dance spot of sorts on Friday and Saturday nights — or at least, that’s what was happening on the evening of Friday, Aug. 31, 2018.

That said, let’s get on with my assessment of Stanford’s first football game of the year!

• The Bad

Faithful Bad-Ugly-Good readers will be familiar with this lament: It’s hard to find fault with the Cardinal’s performance when they win by at least three touchdowns. Such is the happy problem I face once again!

There was some concern among Cardinal tweeters during the first half, when San Diego State took a 7-0 lead and Stanford’s club seemed lost in all phases of the game. As I wrote to a chagrined friend, the team’s start was disappointing, especially given SDSU’s 2017 victory.

It helped matters not at all that Stanford, in quarterback coach Tavita Pritchard’s first game as offensive coordinator, had to call a timeout right after receiving the opening kickoff. (Even worse, of course: That play resulted in an incomplete pass.) It was also a somewhat unsettling to see the Cardinal’s first drive — the only time the offense effectively moved the ball in the initial period — end without points when junior kicker Jet Toner sliced the ball wide left from 38 yards out.

Obviously, Stanford regrouped and rallied for a convincing victory. However, SDSU is likely to be at best the fourth-strongest team on the Cardinal’s schedule, after Notre Dame, Washington and, of course, the upcoming opponent, USC. It won’t be as easy to recover from a slow start against those teams as it was in the opener against the Aztecs. Therefore, I dub the Cardinal’s sluggish early play this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

Bryce Love prospered last year even when Stanford’s quarterback play was mediocre or worse. He set Football Bowl Subdivision records by contributing a rush of 30 or more yards in 13 straight games and a rush of 50 or more yards in 11 consecutive contests. His per-rush average of 8.05 yards in 2017 is also an FBS record, and that number almost surely would have been higher had Love not injured his ankle against Oregon in the season’s seventh game.

It’s natural to be concerned after seeing the Aztecs contain Love, whose senior campaign began with an extremely modest 29 yards on 18 rushes and 18 yards on three receptions. But as was widely noted after the game, the defensive strategy that allowed SDSU to hold the Cardinal to 50 rushing yards came at a high price. Stanford’s receiving corps — more about this momentarily! — was largely free to roam the field, and San Diego State eventually paid a heavy price for the choices they made.

One game is not enough of a sample for us to be worried about Love and his fellow running backs, but I feel it fitting to deem the Cardinal ground attack to be this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

Stanford enjoyed a number of strong defensive performances on Friday night. Cornerback Alameen Murphy and inside linebacker Sean Barton, both seniors, led the team with nine tackles apiece (five solo for Murphy, three for Barton). Fifth-year outside linebacker Joey Alfieri and sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo each had eight tackles. Alfieri’s total included a solo sack, while Adebo, who was seeing his first collegiate action, deflected a pair of passes. Moreover, junior defensive end Jovan Swann nabbed 1.5 sacks and participated in another tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Of course, everyone came away from the game talking about J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s performance, and rightly so: His six catches for 226 yards and three scores equaled his personal single-game scoring record and outstripped his previous high mark of 130 yards against Washington. The South Carolina native now owns the third-highest single-game receiving yardage total in school history, which spans 124 campaigns.

Naturally, the senior out of Inman, S.C., wouldn’t have done any of that without steady play under center. Quarterback K.J. Costello was arguably even more impressive than Arcega-Whiteside, especially once he settled down late in the second quarter. The junior passer tied his career high with four touchdowns and smashed his own single-game yardage mark (212 in the Alamo Bowl) with 332 yards. His efficiency rating of 193.8 trailed only the 220.9 he racked up in a 52-27 romp at Oregon.

I was tempted to honor what’s quickly been dubbed the K.J.-to-J.J. pipeline; truth be told, I thought that Costello’s second-half consistency gave him an edge.

However, I think the best thing Stanford showed in its debut was the collective effort by the defense. San Diego State managed just 263 yards of offense, including 150 on the ground, while converting only four of 13 third downs. On a night where several aspects of the team shined, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s unit earned the right to be labeled The Good.

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