Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 6-4 Stanford

November 14, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 14, 2018

I watched football by myself at James Joyce last Saturday and found myself quite gratified by the Cardinal’s performance.

Truth be told, I was also a bit relieved by the win.

• The Bad

Through 10 games, Stanford’s total defense has been rather alarming. The Cardinal is allowing 410.7 yards per contest, which ranks 74th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. That’s the most that the Cardinal defense has surrendered since 2007, when the team let up 435.5 ypg en route to a 4-8 record in Jim Harbaugh’s first year.

Yikes. The Cardinal is about to meet two offensively challenged teams, Cal and UCLA, the latter of which is rivaled only by Oregon State for being the worst team in the conference. With a bit of luck, Stanford’s total defense will improve slightly — but this week, it is still worthy of being labeled The Bad.

• The Ugly

Look, there was barely a nit to be picked in the Cardinal’s triumph over Oregon State. So I’ll admit up front that this is a bit of a reach.

Last week, following the loss to Washington, I complained about the Stanford coaching staff, but I didn’t specify many failures other than their inability to get the offense ready to play well early. Let me be a bit more precise this week. Again, this doesn’t regard anything that happened against the Beavers, but is related to the team’s struggles in their four losses.

Stanford’s play-calling has often been suspect. The Cardinal runs far more than it passes on first down. What’s more, the Cardinal has attempted to be a team that uses the run to open up the passing game when its mid-season struggles — the offense failed to break 80 rushing yards per game in a 1-2 stretch against Oregon, Notre Dame and Utah — should have more than clarified the fact that the offensive line just doesn’t run-block as well as it has over the bulk of the Harbaugh-Shaw era.

Hopefully the coaches have learned their lesson, and this won’t be a point of frustration over the remainder of the season. The offensive play-calling — more precisely, the failure to understand the Cardinal’s strengths and weaknesses — are this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

It’s time I gave the Cardinal aerial game some love. Quarterback K.J. Costello was 23 of 33 for 342 yards, four touchdowns and one interception against the Beavers. In just 21 games, Costello has thrown for 4,427 yards, which puts him 13th on Stanford’s career passing yardage list. He has 2,854 yards this season; at some point in the first half of Big Game, Costello will likely bump Kevin Hogan’s 2,867 yards from 10th place on the season passing list.

Costello has six 300-yard passing games this year, tying John Elway’s 1982 mark. He may yet catch Steve Stenstrom, who had eight such efforts in an 11-game 1993 season. He has 23 touchdown passes, good for eighth most in Cardinal history; with a little luck, he can tie or exceed the 27 touchdowns that Elway (1980), Stenstrom (’93) and Hogan (’15) tossed, which stand at third in the school record books. (Andrew Luck threw for 32 touchdowns in 2010 and 37 the following year.)

The Coto de Caza, Calif., native has had his bad moments, to wit his three interceptions against Washington and a 15-for-27 outing against Notre Dame that produced only 174 yards. For much of the season, however, Costello has played at a high level.

Yes, Stanford’s 2017 receiving corps is terrific, and tight end Colby Parkinson was outstanding against the Beavers, with six catches for 166 yards and four touchdowns. But right now, let’s give it up for Costello, who is this week’s The Good.

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