Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: KJ Costello was really good against the Huskies last season. His numbers look solid this year too. How would you assess his play so far in 2018? Where does he need to improve the most?
Hank Waddles: What we’ve seen from Costello this season is what hoped for after last year’s preview. As you note, his numbers have been great, and he’s currently the top rated passer in the Pac-12, even ranking above Washington State’s Gardner Minshew. He has a gunslinger’s confidence, which is obviously good and bad, but he has the skill and accuracy to back that up most of the time. He’s only started about a season’s worth of games, so you can still see improvement from week to week. As an example, he’s been doing a much better job of looking off defenders recently, which is nice to see. If there are concerns, it goes back to his gunslinger mentality. He doesn’t yet know when to give up on a play, either by taking a sack or throwing the ball away. There have been a few times when he’s even thrown balls blindly as he’s been going down, which could obviously be potentially disastrous. Also, he’s still learning. On a critical 4th and 3 in the fourth quarter last week, Costello dropped back to pass and then worked through his possessions until he settled on a check down to Bryce Love, even though Love was a few yards behind the line of scrimmage already blanketed by two defenders. If ever there was a time to force a ball into a receiver downfield, that was it, but he didn’t do it. So at this point in Costello’s young career, you can expect some brilliance, a few glaring errors, but mostly just steady quarterback play.
UWDP: JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a beast. The Huskies know they have their hands full there. Tell us about some of the other top receiving targets like Kaden Smith and Trenton Irwin. Explain how each is used in the passing game. Any other emerging receivers we should know about? How has the pass protection been for Stanford so far?
Hank: The offensive line has been struggling through much of the season, but one thing they’ve done reasonably well has been pass protection, and that’s obviously had a hand in Costello’s success. More than that, though, Costello has benefitted from having tons of weapons in the passing game. The Cardinal offense has been run heavy since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh and through David Shaw’s tenure, but this current group of wide receivers is perhaps the deepest and most talented in school history. You mention J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who is an absolute matchup nightmare. He’s the primary target in the red zone, where his basketball skills come into play as he boxes out smaller defenders, but he’s become a vertical threat as well, and is currently second in the nation with 11 touchdowns. Trenton Irwin is the other receiver, and he’s a possession receiver in the truest sense. Ever since his commitment hit the fax machine back in 2015 the Stanford coaches have been raving about his skill as a route runner, and he’s the one receiver on the squad who will run every route. He’s incredibly versatile, almost never drops a ball, and he’s even become the primary punt returner, which is odd. Costello’s roommate, Kaden Smith, is a prototypical tight end in the mold of Zach Ertz. He’s the king of the seam route, and Costello excels at putting the ball up high where only the 6’5” Smith can get it. Behind that big three, Husky fans might want to watch for sophomore Connor Wedington, a one-time Washington commit who flipped late to Stanford. He had the most productive seasons of any true freshman in recent Stanford history, and expectations were high entering this season, but he hasn’t seen the field since an injury in the opener against San Diego State. But he’s been practicing this week, and Shaw says there’s a possibility he could get on the field.
UWDP: Bryce Love has not been Bryce Love in 2018. Is it injuries, or is there more to the story? The Cardinal as team are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. What’s been the problem? How has the offensive line performed in the running game?
Hank: I don’t even know where to begin with this question. After spending time with Bryce Love at media day two summers ago, I immediately became a huge fan. At the time, I was just hoping he’d be good enough that people wouldn’t be asking him about Christian McCaffrey all season, and then he went out and had one of the best seasons in NCAA history. With the majority of the offensive line returning intact, there was little reason to believe that Love wouldn’t have more success this year, but that obviously hasn’t been the case. There have been three reasons for this. First, teams have been stacking the box to an extreme, especially early in the season. In the season opener, San Diego State didn’t even pretend to care about the receiving game, choosing instead to play eight and even nine men in the box to take away the running game. Second, the offensive line has struggled all year. There have been numerous injuries and several different starting lineups, and even the players who’ve returned from injury — center Jesse Burkett, left tackle Walker Little, guard Nate Herbig — don’t appear to be fully healthy, which is unfortunate. Finally, Love has been hurt. He missed a game early with what appeared to be a concussion, and then he missed the Utah game with a sprained ankle, and limped his way through the next two. It still isn’t clear how much he’ll play Saturday, if at all. It’s been bad for the Stanford offense, but it’s been worse for Love. After watching him battle through a tough injury during the second half of last season, it’s hard to see him dealing with this again.
UWDP: Stanford is 9th in the Pac-12 in total defense and dead last in passing defense. That is not something we are used to seeing from this team under David Shaw. Has it looked as bad as the number indicate? How has the unit performed in your opinion? Who has stood out on defense.
Hank: That narrative about the Stanford defense has been getting a lot of play, but it’s wrong. Those dominant Stanford defenses that many remember have been gone for a few years now. Even so, things have been tougher than expected this season. Again, there have been injuries. Starting linebacker Casey Toohill missed a few games, and as soon as he returned fellow starter Joey Alfieri went down. As for the struggles against the pass, that’s more a result of a thin and inexperienced defensive line than an indictment of the secondary. There continues to be a great deal of talent back there, led by sophomore Paulsen Adebo. Even though Adebo only has eight games of experience, he already looks to have the potential to become one of the best cornerbacks in the conference by next year. Watch for him — he’s a playmaker. In general, though, this unit is going to give up a lot of yards. Wins and losses will be decided based on whether or not they also give up a lot of points.
UWDP: Is Jet Toner the MVP for Stanford? Dude is 34/35 on all of his placekicks including 3-3 from beyond 40 yards. How have the special teams been for the Cardinal overall?
Hank: Jet Toner has definitely been great, but I’d argue that Stanford’s biggest special teams weapon is punter Jake Bailey. He’s second in the conference, averaging 43.6 yards per punt, and he has a knack for coming up with is biggest punts when the team needs them the most. Stanford’s kick return game, meanwhile, has been a weakness.
Cameron Scarlett was among the top kick returners in the nation last season, but he hasn’t been able to duplicate that success this season, largely due to weak blocking in front of him.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Hank: Even though the Cardinal came up short last week, they played well enough to win, and I think they’ll be able to keep that momentum going on Saturday. For the first time all season, Shaw accepted the weaknesses of his running game and embraced the strength of this year’s offense, allowing Costello to throw a career-high 43 passes. I think we’ll see more of that on Saturday, hopefully. I think we’re looking at a shootout, with Costello and his big receivers proving to be a bit too much for the Huskies.
I’ve got it at Stanford 34, Washington 31.