Cardinal considerations: Can Stanford recover from its two-game losing streak?

September 21, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 21, 2019

Since David Shaw was became Stanford’s head football coach prior to the 2011 season, the Cardinal has had a swell run. Over Shaw’s eight-plus seasons, the team has extended its bowl streak to a school-best 10 years, which currently leads the conference. Shaw boasts an 83-28 record, which translates to a winning percentage of 74.8. The former Cardinal wide receiver has been named the Pac-12 coach of the year four times, more than any other over the 44-year history of the award.

Half of Shaw’s 28 defeats have occurred as part of consecutive losses. Never to this point has a Shaw-coached team sustained more than two losses in a row. I’ve assembled the following table of the seven losing streaks, which you’ll probably have to click on to read:

Stanford football losing streaks under David Shaw, 2014 onward

One thing really stands out about this data in my mind. Namely, that the frequency of losing streaks has ramped up greatly.

Prior to 2017, the Cardinal had had just two losing streaks under Shaw: a pair of Ls in 2014 and another pair in 2016. But Stanford had two such streaks in both 2017 and 2018, and just three games into 2019, there’s been another. This certainly indicates a downward trend for the team.

The other noteworthy item that the table highlighted is that the 2019 back-to-back defeats represents the second-highest cumulative margin of defeat (43 points) in the Shaw era. That figure trails only the whopping 64-point combined shortfall in 2016 following 44-6 and 42-16 losses at No. 10 Washington and to No. 15 Washington State, respectively.

(Having said that, of course, I feel obligated to add that the first 2018 losing streak saw the Cardinal drop decisions by a combined 40 points.)

I don’t know if it’s time for Stanford fans to panic, although a feeling of uneasiness is more than justified.

Here’s the good news, in my view. The Cardinal offense, which has generated five field goals and five touchdowns, is producing just under 17 points per game. I know there’s room to grow on that side of the ball, and I believe that Shaw, his coaching staff, and quarterback K.J. Costello and the other players are likely to improve their performance.

I do, however, have major doubts about the defense. Yes, USC and UCF are both talented teams, but I’m deeply concerned about the Stanford defense’s tendency to give up both big quarters and big plays.

USC overcame a 14-point deficit at the start of the second quarter with a three-touchdown effort that put the Trojans ahead, 24-20, by halftime. Central Florida scored three touchdowns in less than seven minutes to take a 21-0 lead. By the end of the first quarter, the Knights had a decisive 28-7 lead.

Cardinal opponents have also scored five touchdowns of at least 25 yards, two by the Trojans and the first three UCF scores. And those are hardly the only chunk plays that Stanford has allowed.

USC’s Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman each had 31-yard receptions that didn’t go for six points; Drake London added a 45-yard gain that also didn’t get into the end zone. For Central Florida, Greg McCrae had a breakaway 73-yard run that would have been a touchdown if he hadn’t been chased down by free safety Kendall Williamson. Further, Bentavious Thompson had a 30-yard dash while Jacob Harris had a 40-yard catch. That comes to three huge gains per game during Stanford’s back-to-back losses.

Can the Cardinal defense up its game? I just am not as optimistic about this unit as I am about the offense. I can’t explain why, but I’d certainly be happy to be proven wrong.

Again looking on the bright side, Stanford will only play three more road games this season, one of which is a visit to hapless Oregon State. No. 16 Oregon, whom the Cardinal hosts this afternoon, represents a stiff test, and Stanford Stadium is not exactly the most hostile environment in the Pac-12. Even so, I think Cardinal faithful are likely to see a much more competitive contest today than we have over the past two weekends.

I don’t know if Shaw’s gridders will be able to come away with a victory over the Ducks. I won’t claim to be very optimistic about the Cardinal reaching nine or more wins in 2019, and in fact, I’m not positive that the team will extend its bowl streak this year. But as I like to say, we’ll know more after this week’s game.

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