Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 1-2 Stanford

September 17, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2019

Saturday was the first time I caught a Stanford football game in person since the Cardinal traveled to Boulder in 2015. It was the team’s first trip to the East Coast since their 2013 visit to West Point.

For a hot minute, it seemed as though the contest in Orlando might be staged in the fringes of the tropical storm that subsequently evolved into Humberto. The system’s track shifted to the east; still, for a short time Saturday morning it rained fiercely, and a strong threat of precipitation was forecast for the late afternoon as recently as a few hours before kickoff.

I’d brought just one pair of shoes on my trip to Florida, and I didn’t want them to get deluged during my spectating. I purchased some Teva boat shoes the day before the game and donned them after parking on campus. Five minutes into my trek to the stadium, I had a blister on the back of my left foot. I tried adjusting the straps, to no effect. I walked barefoot for a short distance, but the campus grass felt coarse and unpleasant beneath my feet.

I eventually settled on stepping on the backs of my footwear, which were essentially glorified sandals. Other than one experiment with returning the shoes to their original configuration, I walked on the backs of my shoes until I returned to my car, which was around five and a half hours after I’d parked.

As I started writing this blog post, on Sunday afternoon, I still have that blister on my left foot. And I noticed Sunday morning that I had some kind of bruise on the top of my left foot that was undoubtedly left by the boat shoes; when I undressed in the evening, what I thought was a bruise turned out to be a lesion. Walking around was pretty uncomfortable at first, but I got used to it.

Oh, and about that rain? It drizzled a few times during the contest, and I broke out my poncho on a couple of occasions, but I don’t think I ever bothered to pull it over my head.

• The Bad

Where to start? Stanford followed up one of its most embarrassing losses in the David Shaw era with a defeat that was even more thorough. UCF grabbed the lead on its first possession and never looked back, amassing 545 offensive yards behind a freshman quarterback.

The Cardinal offense was shaky at best, converting just seven of 18 third-down chances. Junior receiver Connor Wedington had a noticeably putrid outing: I counted three drops on his part, including one (admittedly on an awkwardly positioned dart of a pass) that bounced off his arm and into the breadbasket of a Central Florida defensive back to set up a touchdown for the Knights.

But my oh my, that Stanford defense. It allowed UCF to convert eight of 14 third downs, gain 11.6 yards per passing attempt and average 4.5 yards per carry. The defense was especially impotent in the first half, permitting the hosts to score touchdowns on their first four drives. Cardinal defenders recorded just a single quarterback hurry (redshirt senior Casey Toohill) and one breakup (sophomore strong safety Kendall Williamson). By contrast, the Knights were credited with six hurries and nine deflections.

UCF was the better team Saturday — make no mistake about it. But the complexion of the contest might have changed significantly if, at any number of moments during the first half, the Cardinal defense had been able to put up significant resistance. Instead, the Knights moved and scored virtually at will. Therefore, Stanford’s defensive showing is this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

A football team’s performance often functions as a feedback loop. Good play by the defense or the specialists tends to improve the play of the offense, and vice versa. Similarly, bad play by the offense or the special teams tends to degrade that of the defense, and the other way round.

It doesn’t always work this way, of course — but it did on Saturday. And just as the Cardinal defense came up short time and again in big spots, so too did the Stanford offense falter at crucial points. Quarterback K.J. Costello and comrades had eight first-half possessions; one yielded a turnover that gave UCF a 14-0 lead with more than 50 minutes left in the game, one produced a Stanford touchdown, and six resulted in punts.

On the other hand, the offense did show some flashes of promise. The running attack averaged a solid 5 yards per carry; unfortunately, because the team trailed big for most of the contest, Stanford ran the ball just 23 times against 49 passes.

I think the offense, while uneven, has shown more potential than the defense. That up-and-down track earns the unit this week’s designation of The Ugly.

• The Good

Look, there’s not a lot to choose from here. Junior tight end Colby Parkinson was a reliable target for Costello, reeling in six balls for 51 yards. Sophomore wideout Michael Wilson had a career day with five catches for 71 yards, including an impressive 24-yard touchdown grab that required him to turn around and leap over a defender. Junior receiver Osiris St. Brown had 51 yards on three receptions. Senior running back Cameron Scarlett caught five passes for 34 yards.

On the defensive side, redshirt senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill led the team with eight tackles (five solo) and contributed to a stop behind the line of scrimmage.

But I think Stanford’s standout positive performance came from Austin Jones. The freshman runner out of Antioch, Calif., carried seven times for 65 yards and had a four-yard reception.

Most importantly, Jones scored the Cardinal’s first touchdown on a thrilling 35-yard scamper. He hesitated behind the line when his assigned running lane collapsed, escaped a defender’s grasp, bounced outside while evading a pair of diving would-be tacklers, and cut back inside to exploit a crushing Costello block en route to his first collegiate score.

It was an inspiring effort, reminiscent of the last Stanford player to wear No. 20 — former all-world running back Bryce Love. (Incidentally, Love’s own first touchdown came against UCF on an impressive 93-yard catch-and-run from Kevin Hogan back in 2015.) If Jones can build on Saturday’s performance, that will be an extremely helpful development for the Cardinal. As it is, his play in Orlando qualifies as this week’s The Good.

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