Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 4-8 Stanford

December 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 4, 2019

I marked the end of Stanford’s 2019 football season where I’d welcomed it: At Tobacco Road, where I watched the Notre Dame game with elation that eventually shaded into apprehension and then despair. It’s fair to say that I was cranky during the second half.

• The Bad

What for Stanford doesn’t belong in this category, especially as the game wore on? The Cardinal was outscored 24-7 in the final 30 minutes, as the Irish gained 249 yards on 44 snaps and held the ball for nineteen minutes and 37 seconds. Stanford’s equivalent figures were 120, 27 and 10:13.

A huge issue was turnovers. The Cardinal lost two balls — a fumbled punt at midfield and a fumble in the Cardinal end zone, which led to a total of 10 Irish points — while not generating any takeaways.

However, the real problem in this game was an offensive drought of atrocious scope and impact. Stanford’s second touchdown came with 9:29 remaining in the second quarter, giving the hosts a 17-7 lead. The next eight possessions went as follows:

• Three plays for nine yards, one minute 31 second time of possession, resulting in a blocked punt.
• 5-18, 1:14, punt.
• 8-35, 1:13, punt (as time expired in the first half).
• 3-9, 1:29, punt.
• 3-5, 0:53, punt.
• 3-8, 1:21, punt.
• 0-(minus-1), 0:00, lost fumble while attempting to field a Notre Dame punt.
• 7-14, 2:25, punt.

Eight possessions, seven punts and a fumble. During this span — starting with the blocked punt, which set up goal to go at the home 1 — Notre Dame scored 31 points.

If at any period during this stretch, the Cardinal offense had managed to give the defense an extended rest, or even (imagine!) to score points, the game would have become significantly more competitive. Unfortunately, 30 minutes and 23 seconds would pass from the moment the second touchdown was scored until Stanford began its third and final touchdown drive. That agonizing stretch of offensive ineptitude and futility is this week’s The Bad.

• The Ugly

The Cardinal was flagged six times for 56 yards. Not great, but not outright terrible, either. When I checked on the Pac-12’s final regular season statistics, I found that Stanford was second in the conference in this category, having committed 75 infractions for 585 yards (48.8 yards per game).

That’s… pretty good, actually. But any satisfaction I might have taken from this statistic was tempered by the team at the top of the league. Cal led the Pac-12 with 56 penalties for 483 yards (40.2 ypg). That reminds me of the Cardinal’s ugly Big Game loss, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Two related notes: On Saturday, Notre Dame committed 11 violations for 95 yards. For 2019, the Cardinal was seventh in the league for opponent penalties committed: 74 for 683, 56.9 ypg.

Penalties, both as they pertain to the Irish and for the season, are this week’s The Ugly.

• The Good

This is another tough one in a season of tough ones. Let’s review some candidates.

Sophomore receiver Michael Wilson gained 96 yards on 10 receptions against the Irish, including an athletic 27-yard touchdown grab. (The 10 catches were the most by a Cardinal since J.J. Arcega-Whiteside snagged the same number for two touchdowns and 111 yards in a 2018 loss to Washington State.) Wilson’s 56 receptions for 672 yards led Stanford, while his five scores through the air trailed only Simi Fehoko’s six. That duo, who will be juniors next year, will form a terrific foundation for the Cardinal receiving corps in 2020.

Redshirt senior Cameron Scarlett didn’t have an especially stellar performance in his final collegiate contest: 13 runs for 43 yards with a long of 16 (3.3 yards per carry), plus 25 yards on three catches with a long of 13. Still, Scarlett contributed a terrific nine-yard scoring rush that briefly revived Stanford faithful’s hopes of rallying for a win. Reliable No. 22 finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer (44 points on seven rushing TDs and a two-point rushing conversion), behind injured kicker Jet Toner’s 49 points. Scarlett also led the team in yards from scrimmage, with 1,080 (840 rushing, 240 receiving). Only Connor Wedington, who was injured near the start of Big Game, had more all-purpose yards (1,126 with 30 rushing, 506 receiving and 590 on kickoff returns).

Junior strong safety Stuart Head led the team and tied a personal high with eight tackles (seven unassisted) against the Irish. Senior inside linebacker Curtis Robinson was just behind him with seven stops; he finished second on the season with 64 stops (37 solo).

But let’s instead recognize a group accomplishment. The Stanford defense held Notre Dame to four of 14 third-down conversions. (Interestingly, this precisely matched Stanford’s third-down rate.)

That obviously wasn’t enough to win the game, as the Irish gained 10 or more yards in plenty of first- and second-down situations. But in a lot of cases, that would have been a good enough defensive performance to at least keep the team in a game. Given that Notre Dame entered the contest with a 9-3 record, far superior to Stanford’s 4-7, I’ll go with this showing as this week’s The Good.

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