Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 1-3 Stanford

September 25, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2019

This week, I have no blisters or stories to share; there was just a visit to a sports bar to see yet another desultory Stanford loss.

• The Bad

We are yet again spoiled for choice in this category. On a macro level, the Cardinal’s pass defense was atrocious; the offense was held to 234 yards and six points while converting only five of 16 third downs; and the special teams unit returned only two punts for a paltry nine yards while being pinned inside their own 15-yard line all of five times.

But let’s return to a favorite Bad-Ugly-Good punching bag this year: Head coach David Shaw and his assistants, particularly the offensive staff led by coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard. The team averages 320.8 yards (ranking 118th out of 130 Division Football Bowl Subdivision teams) and 17.5 points per game (122nd). The quarterbacks are averaging 5.52 yards per pass attempt (125th) and have thrown for three touchdowns (tied with seven teams for 117th).

(Note that the scoring average includes a pair of defensive touchdowns, without which the Cardinal is producing 14 points each week.)

These are all the worst marks in the league — often by a considerable margin. Yes, starting passer K.J. Costello lost a game and a half following a scary hit in the season opener, and yes, the injury-riddled offensive line is probably the thinnest it’s been since David Shaw became Stanford’s head coach in 2011.

But these numbers are still abysmal, and I believe that ultimately the blame lies with Shaw and his offensive coaches. They are therefore designated this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

I rarely dwell on poor performances by individual players, who are after all college students operating in a system that doesn’t fairly compensate their physical labor. However, it’s necessary to examine Costello’s showing over the first four games of the season.

The senior out of Coto de Caza, Calif., has failed to throw for more than 199 yards in a game, although he was on pace for 300 before being knocked out of the Northwestern tussle. He’s generated two touchdowns and two picks, and his longest throw has gone for 27 yards.

I don’t know if he’s hurt, if he’s lost confidence in the offensive front (justifiable, since it’s becoming more permeable by the week) or if he’s still adjusting to a new group of receivers who lack the size of WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and TE Kaden Smith and the reliability of WR Trenton Irwin. It’s probably a mix of these factors, and potentially others as well.

(One item to consider: Kevin Hogan stirred fans’ ire when he experienced an off season in 2014. Some embarrassment ensued, as it later emerged that his father, Jerry, was in the final stages of battling colon cancer that year.)

Whatever the cause, the fact is that Costello, who was expected to be one of Stanford’s most dynamic individuals, has become a downward drag on this team. This harsh reality, and the uncomfortable decisions that the coaching staff will have to confront if Costello struggles this weekend at Oregon State, is this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

I’m tempted to choose senior running back Cameron Scarlett for this laurel. He tied his career high (set on Aug. 31 against Northwestern) with 97 yards. However, it’s hard to honor anyone on the offense this week given their lack of scoring, and Scarlett already got the nod after week one.

Instead, let’s look on the other side of the ball. The Cardinal defensive front was solid, sacking Justin Herbert four times and tackling the ball carrier short of the line of scrimmage on three other occasions.

But let’s single out one particular player. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill has anchored the defense, which he leads in solo tackles (16), total tackles (28), sacks (four for a loss of 35 yards) and tackles-for-loss (six for minus-39 yards). He forced the last-minute fumble that senior outside linebacker Jordan Fox recovered for the game-winning touchdown against Northwestern.

Against Oregon, Toohill was tied with senior inside linebacker Andrew Pryts with six solo stops and with Pryts and Fox with eight overall tackles apiece. The San Diego native got to Herbert twice for minus-14 yards and also recorded a quarterback hurry.

The Cardinal defense has plenty of room for improvement, especially in the secondary. But Toohill has put in a tremendous effort and has shown himself to be an outstanding leader. His outing against Oregon, along with his season-long productivity, is this week’s The Good.

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