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

September 3, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 3, 2019

I watched the season opener at Tobacco Road with my local Stanford sports buddy. The joint was hopping — a bunch of interesting college football games started at 3:30, about half an hour before the Cardinal kicked off against Northwestern, and the restaurant was doing a booming pregame business with Durham Bulls fans dining before a 6:30 first pitch on the final weekend of regular season play in the International League.

• The Bad

Stanford’s defense produced four takeaways. Here’s what the offense did with those:

• First-quarter interception at the Northwestern 46 with 10:02 remaining: Three plays, one yard, 0:53 time of possession, punt.

• Third-quarter fumble recovery at the Stanford 6, 11:30 remaining: Four plays, 30 yards, 2:11, lost fumble.

• Third-quarter interception at the Northwestern 38, 4:14 remaining: Five plays, 27 yards, 1:35, missed 29-yard field-goal attempt.

That might cut it in an uninspiring 10-point win over a mediocre visiting Big 10 team, but it will not do against stiffer competition — and make no mistake, Stanford has one of the toughest schedules in the land. The Cardinal offense’s inability to put points on the board after the Wildcats’ first three turnovers is this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

It’s become rather commonplace for Stanford fans to moan about how the football squad seems lackluster and unprepared in season openers.

The top-level data don’t precisely back up this complaint; the Cardinal, after all, is 8-1 in season openers under head coach David Shaw. (That loss is, as I mentioned in my game recap, particularly notorious.) Of the eight wins, only two were particularly close: A 20-17 victory over 21st-ranked San Jose State in 2012, Shaw’s second year, and a 26-13 defeat of Kansas State, both on the Farm. All the other games qualify as blowouts.

Still, the team has sometimes emitted a rather desultory air in some of its debuts. Last year the offense, operating under newly elevated coordinator Tavita Pritchard, burned a timeout before the first play from scrimmage in a 31-10 win over San Diego State. This year, Pritchard’s offense — guided by senior K.J. Costello, a two-time team captain starting his 20th straight game under center — called for a pause in the action before the second play from scrimmage.

Yes, these incidents are anecdotal, and yes, many college football teams have plenty of kinks to work out in their first games, but I agree with the fan consensus that something is lacking in the preparation for season openers. That nebulous failure to prepare is on Shaw and his coaching staff, and it is this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

Fifth-year senior Cameron Scarlett was the game’s top rusher with 97 yards on 22 carries (4.4 ypc) and tacked on three receptions for 38 yards, including a 17-yarder that helped lead to the Cardinal’s first touchdown.

Scarlett did his best work on a pair of fourth-quarter possessions following the Northwestern touchdown that narrowed the score to 10-7 in favor of the hosts.

With the Cardinal playing its second-string quarterback, junior Davis Mills, Scarlett ran for a game-high 17 yards on the very first play after the Wildcats score; he had two further carries for nine yards before Mills fumbled at the Purple Pride’s 35.

After the Wildcats were forced to punt, Scarlett lost two yards on the same play where junior lineman Walker Little suffered an injury. However, he ran for 10 and then 12 yards on the very next plays, and later added seven yards on three carries before Stanford had to punt.

Scarlett wasn’t particularly flashy, and he didn’t reach the century mark. Nonetheless his steadiness was crucial for Stanford with the game hanging in the balance and an inexperienced player under center. I look forward to seeing what more Scarlett can do for Stanford as he accumulates experience. His performance Saturday was admirable, and I deem it entirely worthy of being labeled this week’s The Good.

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