I’m still not exactly sure how they pulled it off.
Quarterback instability? (check)
Dinged up star player? (check)
Struggling pass rush? (check)
Inability to get the defense off the field? (check)
Poor Red Zone defense? (check)
Smugness factor on the sideline? (check, check, check)
Yet, despite all that was going against them, the Stanford Cardinal still managed to come away with the North Division title. It was their fourth North championship in the last six years.
We’ll save for another day our analysis on how much damage it did to the perception of the league to have such a flawed division champ emerge out of the PAC. For now, we simply need to ask ourselves “why?” and “can it happen again?”
The cynic would answer the question as to “why” by pointing to the flaws of the 2017 Washington Huskies and laying Stanford’s championship at Chris Petersen’s doorstep.
But to do so would invalidate the brilliant work put in by David Shaw and his merry band of scrappers in covering up their flaws and doing what they had to do in order to find a way to win.
The truth is that Stanford was not a great team. But the combination of an out-of-this-world running back with a +16 team turnover margin created just enough extra possessions for Stanford to outscore their opponents on most days.
Barely enough. But enough.
Is this formula repeatable? Was 2017 just a rebuilding year on the way to something better? The truth is that Stanford lost a lot of players from last year’s team, but the big names are all back. None more so than Heisman-worthy running back Bryce Love.
Time to queue up all the tried and true “Love” puns that we all know and...appreciate. It’s Gekko time. Up next: Stanford.
Stanford Offensive Highlights
|offensive line play||outside speed||RB Bryce Love||WR Osiris St Brown (RFr)|
|RB explosiveness||qb reliability||OL Walker Little||QB Tanner McKee (TFr)|
|receiver size||WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside|
Of all the keen insights that I shared with you in predicting Stanford last season, I want you to remember most that I warned you about Bryce Love. In fact, I made the argument last year that Stanford was rapidly becoming an offense-first team and that it would be the offense, not the defense, that would carry its success.
This certainly turned out to be true. Stanford’s offense - through its ball protection (just 12 lost turnovers - second only to UW) and its remarkable hit rate on big rushing plays (35 runs of 20+ yds) - was the second most important factor in driving Stanford’s success in 2017. (The first was Stanford’s off-the-charts success on special teams: 7th in the NCAA in offensive starting field position, 9th in defensive.)
It will be difficult for Stanford to replicate all of that good juju in 2018. But do they need it in order to build on their offense?
The biggest parts of Stanford’s offense are all back this year. None is bigger than senior Bryce Love. Love is a legitimate Heisman candidate who put up some unbelievable numbers in 2018. I can’t possibly cover all of them in this preview, but I would point out his big play stats. Love had 13 rushes for over 50 yards on the season (an FBS record), had 12 100-yard games (a Stanford record), had 13 straight games with at least one rush over 30 yards (an FBS record) and had 11 straight games with at least one rush over 50 yards (an FBS record). And he did it all on a bad wheel for most of the year.
Husky fans will remember a hobbled Love simply taking over the UW game in Palo Alto last year. Against a rush D that had allowed just three rushing TDs all year, Love scored three himself. That complemented his 166 yards on a hard-fought 30 attempts. In fact, he got stronger as the game wore on. His 30th attempt in that game went for 35 yards.
So, yeah, Bryce Love is a good back. He’s joined in the backfield by Cameron Scarlett who, along with Love, helped to power Stanford’s “best” running back tandem in history (at least by way of measuring yards and TDs). Scarlett is a versatile back who runs big and has soft hands. He’s not a playmaker who can make something of nothing, but he’s also not going to be going backwards very often. He and Trevor Speights make up a solid rushing rotation behind Love.
The quarterback situation that was so unsettled a year ago appears to be a strength for Stanford now. K.J. Costello is clearly “the man” after taking over a year ago for the now-transferred Keller Chryst. Costello doesn’t wow you with any of his stats, but he always seems to be making the right plays when on the field. The 6’5” signal caller stands tall over the line, has good pocket presence, and is accurate on the short throws. David Shaw, I’m sure, loves his tiny interception rate, but a 7.5 yards per attempt shows that Costello still has room to push himself on generating longer passing plays.
Health is a concern for Costello after having missed all of spring due to a hip injury. While there is no experience behind him, there are some top notch blue-chippers waiting in the wings with players like redshirt freshman David Mills and true freshman Tanner McKee on the roster.
The rest of the passing attack is a bit more of a question. There is some great front-line talent with all three of Costello’s top three receivers - senior Trenton Irwin, senior J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and sophomore Connor Wedington - all returning. The depth behind those three is a little bit questionable although young players like Osiris St. Brown (6’2” 190) and Michael Wilson (6’2 200) look like really solid options.
In their offense, Stanford relies less on slot receivers than they do tight ends. The early declaration of Dalton Schultz leaves sophomore Kaden Smith as the clear star of the show. Smith certainly is one of the top three receiving tight ends in the conference right now, but he’s not yet an effective blocker - a must in a David Shaw offense. The depth behind him is not what we are used to seeing. Colby Parkinson is a skinny 6’7” pass catcher and Scooter Harrington is largely an unknown commodity.
The offensive line turned the corner on a downward trajectory last year and is back to becoming a strength for Stanford. In fact, I’d call it a “big” strength. Stanford is returning four all-conference linemen and none of them are named Walker Little or Foster Sarell. In all, the Cardinal have 56 returning starts from a year ago. It is deep and balanced and might be the best O-line in the conference.
With Love alone, Stanford was already one of the three best offenses in the PAC. With a maturing QB, a studly O-line, and an increasing number of options in the passing attack, Stanford is a threat to field the best offense in the conference.
Stanford Defensive Highlights
|inside linebacking||interior d-line||S Frank Buncom||DL Dalyn Wade-Perry (RFr)|
|overall experience||pass rush||LB Bobby Okerke||CB Kendall Williamson (TFr)|
|safety depth||DE Dylan Jackson||DE Ryan Johnson (RFr)|
As good as the Cardinal offense projects, there are still very legitimate questions being asked around the Farm about scoring prevention. While their points allowed last season (22.6) were second best in the PAC, they accomplished that largely with smoke and mirrors. Just looking at their defensive production, you can see that great field position and a strong ability to generate turnovers (first in the PAC) were balanced out by an overall lack of efficiency and a proneness to giving up big plays, particularly in rushing defense.
To complicate matters, Stanford is losing all of their best players from last year’s defense, including DT Harrison Phillips, S Justin Reid, LB Peter Kalambayi (after four years, I can finally spell his name without looking it up), and CB Quenton Meeks. The good news, however, is that this is a defense still loaded with juniors and seniors.
The linebacking corps is a particular strength. Their core group of thumpers - senior Bobby Okereke, senior Joey Alfieri, and senior Jordan Perez - combined last year for about 150 tackles, 15 TFLs and 8 sacks. They are a solid rotation of inside backers who don’t all bring elite athleticism to the field but who excel in the fundamentals.
The best linebacker might turn out to be junior OLB Curtis Robinson. He’s a very versatile guy who does everything just well enough to become one of the most valuable players on the field. He just hasn’t become that guy yet. Casey Toohill, a 6’4” 250-lb junior, is the other OLB to watch. Toohill is an athletic guy who specializes in the pass rush. Beyond those two, there is plenty of depth of experienced upperclassmen and high-upside young players filling out the LB ranks.
Both the secondary and the D-line will be challenges for the Cardinal. Of the two, I think the secondary has the chance to bounce back the quickest. Losing Meeks and Fields is sure to impact turnover margin. However, what’s left behind may be more technically sound and able to help make Stanford more reliable on third downs and in the red zone.
Senior Alameen Murphy is the bigger corner who will shift into Meeks’s role. I expect sophomore Malik Antoine, a stout but shorter corner, to get the opposite starting job. Neither player stands over 6’ and neither generated an INT a year ago, so there is some trepidation here. There are some bigger bodies in the depth including sophomore Obi Eboh and true freshman Kendall Williamson. But those players seem further away from the field.
Safety is equally as tenuous given the huge hole Reid leaves behind. Fortunately, there are several upperclassmen - primarily seniors Brandon Simmons and Ben Edwards - who are ready to pick up the slack. They’ll join junior Frank Buncom, a bigger safety who had three picks last year, to make up an experienced if not flashy safety rotation. Buncom is a tools kind of safety who broke out last season, in particular in the Washington game where he recorded 11 tackles.
The defensive front is the real source of heartburn for Cardinal fans. Without Phillips, senior Dylan Jackson steps into the leadership role. The problem is that Jackson, an eminently talented 6’6” 275-lb end, just hasn’t produced as a collegian. Last year, he recorded just 1.5 TFLs and 0.5 sacks despite playing as an every-down kind of guy. The other end, sophomore Jovan Swann, shows a little more upside after recording 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks as a freshman. Beyond those two, the rest of the rotation comprises sophomores and freshman who have barely or never seen the field in a Stanford uniform.
Depth is going to be a challenge for sure. DT Michael Williams, an undersized guy who played out of necessity a year ago, will probably start in Phillips’s place. He’ll be rotating with 324-lb redshirt freshman Dalyn Wade-Perry. Wade-Perry is a raw player with a ton of upside, one on which the Stanford staff is really counting to pop.
Another player to watch is 6’4” 260-lb redshirt freshman DE Ryan Johnson. He is another blue-chipper kind of player who has gotten glowing reviews and figures to be a major contributor as a pass rushing end.
One Breakout Player
OLB Casey Toohill
It would have been a little bit of a cop-out to go to the offensive side and pick a guy like K.J. Costello or Osiris St. Brown as a breakout candidate. The real challenge is on the defensive side where David Shaw has hung his “Playmakers Wanted” sign.
Toohill is a guy that I’m fascinated with. There is no clear pass rush menace on this Stanford D right now. At 6’4” and 250 lbs, Toohill represents Stanford’s best option in that regard. He had 4 TFLs and a sack last season.
I realize that Toohill is a junior and that he played in 14 games last year. That might disqualify him as a breakout in most cases. However, the Cardinal are legendary for taking their time with underclassmen on defense. It wouldn’t shock me in the least to see Toohill double his plays behind the LOS and to record six or seven sacks on the year. If he did, he’d qualify as a breakout by any definition.
Projecting the Cardinal
Stanford is a legit PAC 12 contender. In fact, I think that their odds of winning the whole thing are being underestimated based on how unimpressively they won in 2017. The truth is that 2017 was the rebuilding year for the Cardinal and that this 2018 team, while imperfect, is probably better.
It will all start with the offense. Bryce Love has to stay healthy. That is a given. But we should all expect a more effective passing attack that stretches the field a little more. It is a question as to whether or not Costello has the accuracy to convert longer passes. If he doesn’t, we now know that David Shaw won’t hesitate to try out younger players. The weapons around the QB are all there and the offensive line is a real strength.
I do worry that Stanford will really take a step back in turnover generation on defense. But I also think that they will improve in their overall defensive efficiency, especially given the fact that their secondary rotation will be made up of players better suited to pass defense. There is upside on the defensive line, though the middle of it looks soft.
If there is a real threat to Stanford repeating as conference champs, it resides in the schedule. They hosted both Oregon (without Justin Herbert) and Washington at home last year. Both those games will obviously be played on the road this season. On top of that, five of their conference games are on the road this season.
There is one stretch right in the middle of the season - at Oregon, at Notre Dame, and vs Utah - that seems particularly daunting to me. Playing three of their last four on the road will also be a challenge. Their misses are Colorado and Arizona.
The development of a young D-line, a regression in turnover luck, and a difficult schedule will likely create enough headwinds to prevent Stanford from winning the PAC 12 North. But I would not count that as a sure thing. Outside of USC, Stanford presents the greatest challenge to Washington as a contender for a PAC 12 conference championship.