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

November 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 22, 2019

I watched the Stanford–Washington State game at the one Durham venue that I know for sure has Spectrum cable, which carries the Pac-12 Networks. The outcome, sadly, did not go as I’d hoped.

• The Bad

I went through these numbers the other day: Washington State scored on nine of its first 10 possessions, held the ball for nearly 34 minutes and accumulated 624 yards on offense, including 520 through the air.

But as tempted as I am to ding the Cardinal defense — especially the Cardinal pass defense — I’m going to hold off. Stanford has been thin at inside linebacker all year, and the secondary came down with the injury bug at perhaps the worst possible time. Junior cornerback Paulson Adebo and senior free safety Malik Antoine, each of whom had made 20 consecutive starts, didn’t play at all against Wazzu. That’s not exactly an excuse for allowing 520 passing yards, but maybe I’m feeling generous today.

Instead, let’s focus on third-down performance. The Cougars offense converted nine of 13 third downs while holding Stanford to an abysmal four of 11 third-down conversions.

It’s hard to win games with such awful third-down rates on offense or defense, let alone on offense and on defense. And sadly, this issue hasn’t been limited to a single game: The Cardinal offense is 10th in the Pac-12 in third-down conversion, at 38.8 percent, and the defense is 11th, with opponents succeeding on 46.9 percent of third-down opportunities.

The Cardinal’s third-down efforts, offensively and defensively, both against Washington State and for the entirely of 2019, are this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

The Cardinal didn’t start the same five offensive linemen in consecutive games until its eighth game, against Arizona on Oct. 26. That lineup — from left to right, freshman Walter Rouse, freshman Barrett Miller, junior Drew Dalman, freshman Jake Hornibrook and junior Foster Sarell — had an inauspicious debut, surrendering seven sacks for 34 yards in a 34-16 home loss against UCLA while only paving the way for 55 rushing yards. First-time starting quarterback Jack West, a sophomore, completed just 15 of 32 passes for 143 yards in that debacle.

The pass blocking has picked up since then. The line didn’t surrender any sacks to Arizona, let up two at Colorado and allowed two more at Wazzu. Quarterback K.J. Costello threw for 322 yards against Arizona and 245 against the Buffalo, while Davis Mills broke Todd Husak’s 20-year-old school record by passing for 504 yards at WSU.

Regrettably, the running game hasn’t been as consistent as the passing attack. Yes, the Cardinal ran for 150 yards and two scores vs. Arizona, but the team had no rushing scores in either of the last two games. Worse yet, the team gained six yards on 10 carries, the worst such performance in 12 years.

The inconsistency from game to game, and especially the mismatch between the O-line’s proficiency at pass blocking and run-blocking, is this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

Give credit to Mills, the junior out of Duluth, Ga.: He had an impressive game. But Stanford lost, and Mills had two picks to go with his three touchdowns.

Those interceptions came at the worst possible times: On back-to-back fourth-quarter possessions with the Cardinal initially facing a 35-22 deficit and badly needing a score. The Cougars, unfortunately for the Farm gridders, capitalized with touchdowns in both cases.

So I’m going to eschew recognizing Mills and instead turn to the position group that assisted his record-breaking performance: The receiving corps.

Junior Connor Wedington, Stanford’s leading receiver with 506 yards on the season, caught eight balls for 119 yards against Washington State with a long gain of 43, while sophomore Michael Wilson had five catches for 114 yards with a 23-yard touchdown and a long gain of 47. Sophomore Simi Fehoko had three receptions for 92 yards with a 28-yard score and a long gain of 54 yards. Junior tight end Colby Parkinson, the team’s second-leading receiver with 492 yards, made five catches for 80 yards with a long of 23.

Running backs Cameron Scarlett and Austin Jones each made multiple receptions, while three other players had one catch apiece for short gains.

The Cardinal receivers aren’t generating either the yardage or scoring we’ve seen in years past (see: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Trent Irwin, Ty Montgomery and Zach Ertz). But I have no quibbles with this group’s talent, and some of the pass-catchers — notably Fehoko, Wilson and the sadly underutilized Osiris St. Brown — are speed burners.

Kudos to Mills, and may he continue to thrive! But let’s celebrate the Cardinal receivers as this week’s The Good.

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