Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 5-2 Stanford

October 26, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 26, 2018

After having lunch with a friend in Northern Virginia, I wrapped up an eight-day trip by driving back to Durham on Thursday, Oct. 18. Since it was late in the afternoon when I arrived and I wanted to get in some exercise, after hurriedly unloading my car I headed back out and hit the pavement. Ultimately, I walked more than 3.5 miles before coming back home to shower, groom myself and dress in Cardinal apparel.

I’d hoped to get in a little bit of pinball action before the football game, but the walk and doing some overdue shaving ate up most of the time available to me before kickoff.

I headed down to my usual Durham Stanford-watching spot but left before the final gun because the place was nearly empty and preparing to close. However, when ‪ASU‬ scored a fourth-quarter touchdown with several minutes remaining in the contest, I realized that I needed to get to a television. I wound up at the same establishment where I’d watched the Cardinal’s disastrous loss to Washington State in 2016. Fortunately, this time the result was much happier for me and other Stanford faithful.

• The Bad

Stanford netted 127 rushing yards on 43 carries against the Sun Devils, which works out to a hair less than 3.0 yards per attempt. Remarkably, for a team that returned the nation’s second-leading rusher and four-fifths of its starting offensive line, this was only slightly worse than the Cardinal’s season-long average of nearly 3.1 yards per carry.

Stanford maintains a conference-worst average of 3.1 yards per rush. Its rate of 91.6 running yards per game is 11th in the Pac-12; only Washington State, which has run the ball 133 times fewer than the Cardinal (508 rushes against 641), has a lower per-game average (72.6). In fact, only three teams in the nation compile fewer rushing yards per game: Northwestern, Washington State and San Jose State.

In case you weren’t a math major, being 126th out of 129 teams is, well, bad. In fact, the Cardinal’s season-long rushing performance constitutes this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

Bryce Love racked up a school-record 2,118 rushing yards in the course of an amazing 2017 campaign that saw him finish second in Heisman voting. In five games this year, he’s netted 348 yards on 87 carries for an average of 4.0 yards per rush and 69.6 rushing yards per game — less than half his rates of 8.1 yards per carry and 162.9 ypg the previous season. Only once has Love exceeded 89 yards on the ground (he had 136 vs. USC).

Against Arizona State, Love had 21 yards on 11 carries with a long of six yards; he also had two receptions for 10 catches. His last touches of the contest came with around 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter, when he may have sustained or exacerbated a lower-body injury.

It’s not quite right to say that head coach David Shaw and his staff have used Love carelessly this year; after all, due to health concerns, Love sat out both the Davis and Utah games. But I think it’s fair to say that the coaches haven’t used Love carefully enough.

Love seemed to hurt or aggravate his ankle on an infuriating run play that the staff dialed up for the offense on third and 21 in Cardinal territory against Notre Dame. Last year, Love might have busted a big run in that situation, but with his and the offensive line’s performance in 2018, the risk-reward ratio for such a play pointed in entirely the wrong direction. The diminutive Love, who is listed at five-foot-10 and 202 pounds, may have damaged his NFL draft status — or had it damaged for him — more than any other collegiate player in a generation.

Perhaps the offensive line will find its Tunnel Workers Union mojo and lay the groundwork for a more lively rushing attack over the remainder of the season. But even if that happens, there’s no guarantee that Love will ever return to his 2017 form. The doubts and second-guessing that will rightfully overshadow both Love’s decision to return for his senior year of college and his handling by the Stanford coaching staff constitute this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

I complained on at least four occasions last year that Stanford had failed to develop a secondary rushing threat to complement Love. It took seven games and more health concerns the Cardinal star, but the team finally showed signs of having a second back who can keep opposing defenses honest.

Senior running back Cameron Scarlett had 54 yards and a touchdown on nine carries against the Sun Devils, including a 25-yard run. That’s the first time in the five games that Love has played this season that another Cardinal back has exceeded 50 yards. (Junior back Trevor Speights had 87 yards against Davis and 56 with a touchdown against Utah, the contests that Love missed.)

But something nearly as important may also have emerged in the ‪victory over ‪‪ASU‬‬: Effective pass plays to the backs. Scarlett had a 19-yard reception and Speights had catches of 11 and 14 yards against Arizona State. Both players more than doubled their receiving yardage to date in the season. With defenses guarding against Stanford’s big receiving corps, underneath passes have the potential to make a big difference in moving the ball for the Cardinal.

Because the offensive backfield (non-quarterback category) has been underperforming most of the season, last week’s developments with Scarlett and Speights are definitely steps in the right direction. I declare these promising signs from the running backs to be this week’s The Good.

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