Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 5-4 Stanford

November 10, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 10, 2018

Last Saturday, I went to a friend’s house to watch the Stanford-Washington football game. We were both extremely discouraged by the Cardinal’s abysmal first-half ineptitude, particularly in the first quarter. Neither of us suggested turning off the game.

I did not take a long walk after the contest ended. But man oh man, I could have used one.

• The Bad

Yeah, there are a lot of candidates for this week’s The Bad. As mentioned, Stanford’s everything was lousy in the opening half. The defense was bad, allowing three touchdowns and 225 yards. The offense was arguably worse, compiling a grand total of no (zero!) points, 142 passing yards, 11 (eleven!) rushing yards and a pair of interceptions.

I have complained before about Stanford’s sluggish starts. But rather than single that out, I’ve decided to cast a wider net and pin the blame on the party that is most responsible for these horrific starts: The coaching staff.

I have confidence in Stanford’s head coach, David Shaw. His defensive coordinator, Lance Anderson, has proved his acumen in the dozen years he’s spent working for Shaw and Jim Harbaugh before him. I have no particular complaints about the play this season of Stanford’s tight end or receiving corps, which are coached respectively by Morgan Turner and Bobby Kennedy.

But mercy me, the offense — which saw coordinator Mike Bloomgren become Rice’s head coach during the past offseason — has been slow to get started time and again. It’s also faltered in big spots in the second half, such as going three-and-out when given a chance to cut into Washington’s 24-14 lead late in the third period.

The woeful early offensive performances certainly haven’t helped the defense. But again, I point the finger at the overall coaching staff. Shaw and company need to take a long, hard look at themselves when the 2018 season wraps up. Their leadership — which I criticized two weeks ago specifically for their handling of Bryce Love, and which I censure more generally today — is this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

It’s time to rant about turnovers. Stanford has won all five of the games in which the defense has taken away the ball and lost all four of those in which it’s failed to do so.

For the record, junior passer K.J. Costello’s picks last Saturday against the Huskies came on a fifty-fifty ball where the defensive back made a great play on a contested throw to Trenton Irwin; a fluke catch by a defensive lineman on a tipped ball; and an easy end-zone catch on a final-snap hail mary that seemed to me to have been hobbled from the word go by poor play design.

In 2018, Costello has thrown nine interceptions and the team has lost three fumbles. The defense has recovered five fumbles and intercepted opposing quarterbacks seven times. That makes for a cumulative turnover margin of zero, which is sixth in the Pac-12 and 70th nationally out of 129 Football Bowl Championship Subdivision teams.

Obviously, this Stanford team has enough flaws that such inconsistency with ball security won’t cut it. The club’s overall performance with turnovers is this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

It’s somewhat tempting to praise Costello, who completed 29 of 43 throws for 347 yards and two touchdowns… but three interceptions, no matter how much one of them was a fluke or one of them required a great play by a defender, prevents me from giving the quarterback some love.

I could laud junior tight end Kaden Smith, who had eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown against Washington. He also grabbed nine balls for 112 yards the previous week vs. Washington State, making him the first Cardinal tight end to record back-to-back 100-yard games since Alex Smith in 2004. And Irwin, the senior wideout, has been terrific for the past five games, snagging at least four receptions and as many as eight for anywhere from 57 to 100 yards in each of the past five games. The Valencia, Calif., native has made at least one reception in 37 straight contests, the sixth-longest such streak in the land.

Instead, however, I want to commend the Cardinal defense, which was the target of my ire last week for its generosity to opposing quarterbacks. Specifically, I’d like to pay tribute to the defense’s work in the second half at Washington, when the Huskies offense was limited to 136 total yards, one third-down conversion on seven tries, a trio of three-of-outs and only six points.

Washington finished the game, of course, with 27 points, but that’s not an excessive amount for a road team to let up and still hope to emerge victorious. If Stanford had been only mediocre in the first half, or if it had played a little better in the second half, the team would have bested the purple and gold.

Despite all the flaws that the team displayed in Seattle, the second-half defense was pretty stellar, and for that showing Anderson’s unit very much deserves to be this week’s The Good.

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