Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: When KJ Costello has been healthy, he’s averaging 5 yards per attempt. Davis Mills is close to 7.5 YPA with a better completion percentage. Mills will get the start this week. Is the Stanford offense better with him over Costello? Where does Mills excel?
Hank Waddles: I’m not sure we’d be considering this question if Costello hadn’t been injured in the season opener against Northwestern. After missing much of the spring and summer while rehabbing, Costello needed time to build some chemistry with an almost completely new group of receivers. This would’ve taken a few games under the best of circumstances, but once he missed the second half of the opener and all of the USC game the following week, it almost seemed as if the whole process had to begin again. He struggled against UCF, injured his hand early the next week against Oregon, and then he was out last week. This is the same quarterback who’s just one season removed from one of the best statistical seasons in Stanford history, so it’s difficult to say that the offense has been better without him, but it has. Davis Mills, it turns out, isn’t your standard backup quarterback. He was the top-rated pro-style quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, so his ceiling was always higher than Costello’s, but a string of injuries curtailed his development. Now that he’s healthy, we’re finally seeing the physical tools that we heard about three years ago, and he’s finally getting an opportunity for some game action. He’s looked better each week, so I expect that we’ll see that improvement continue a bit this weekend. All that being said, I fully expect Costello to reclaim his starting spot once he’s healthy, but nothing we’ve heard from David Shaw seems to indicate that will happen this week.
UWDP: How would you asses the offensive line play so far this season. Have they been able to get Cameron Scarlett going?
Hank: During Stanford’s rise to power in the early part of this decade, the success was built on a dominant offensive line that simply took the will out of opposing defenses. There’s even an amusing story about a USC defensive lineman begging Cardinal players to stop running power late in a game. He had had enough. In addition to fielding numerous players who went on to success in the NFL, the other secret to that success was that linemen were unnaturally healthy and each recruiting class was consistently strong. Stanford offensive lines were typically made up almost exclusively of juniors, seniors, and fifth-year seniors, players who had benefitted from several years in Stanford’s strength and conditioning program as they waited their turns to start.
But a two-year gap in recruiting combined with a troubling number of minor and major injuries has decimated this once proud unit. This was the year that Walker Little and Foster Sarell, the top two overall recruits in the nation back in 2017, were supposed to anchor the offensive line, but Little went down with a season-ending knee injury during the opening game, and Sarell has battled minor injuries throughout the fall. This was once the deepest position on the team, but there will only be seven or eight scholarship linemen available on Saturday. Even so, Cameron Scarlett has been consistent enough and healthy enough to lead the conference in yards rushing, which is simply amazing.
UWDP: Michael Wilson leads the way for the Stanford receivers in total yards and yards per catch. Connor Wedington has a ton of catches. How are the two used in the offense? Who else is a threat to catch the ball?
Hank: Washington fans might remember that Connor Wedington was a running back when he originally committed to the Huskies, but he converted to a wide receiver early in his freshman season, typically running routes designed to get him the ball in space — think long handoffs. You will see him run some standard routes, but the Stanford passing offense has been particularly screen heavy this season, and lots of those have been thrown to Wedington. Michael Wilson, on the other hand, is more of a prototypical wideout. He seems to make at least one eye-popping play each week, often using his athleticism to leap over his defender to make a play. Wilson is probably the best true receiver, but tight end Colby Parkinson is another frequent target and someone who needs to have a big game on Saturday for the Cardinal to have a chance at the upset.
UWDP: Stanford is 82nd in scoring defense nationally and 92nd in total defense. One area they rank fairly well is rushing yards per attempt (4th in Pac 12). How has the play of the defense been in your opinion? Who has stood out?
Hank: The defense is something of a mystery. After getting absolutely torched across four quarters — the last two against USC and the first two against UCF — they actually played well while limiting Oregon to just 21 points, and there was optimism that things might be turning around. They shut out Oregon State in the first half last week, and even though the Oregon State offense helped preserve the shutout with several unforced errors during the first two quarters, it was still another positive sign — and then everything fell apart.
A twenty-one-point lead evaporated as the defense allowed Beaver touchdowns on four straight drives in the second half, and only a last second field goal from Jet Toner allowed the Cardinal to avoid what would’ve been an embarrassing defeat. The top player on the defensive side of the ball is cornerback Paulson Adebo, but even he has struggled at times this year. The key for the Stanford defense this week and every week will be limiting big plays. If we see Huskies running free up the middle of the field, it will be a long night; if the Stanford defense can keep Washington backs and receivers in front of them, things will go better.
UWDP: I can’t imagine David Shaw would be on the hot seat (realistically), but could this be an assistant coach “clean house” if things don’t turn around for the Cardinal?
Hank: Aside from Saban and Dabo, there might not be another coach in America whose hold on his job is firmer than Shaw’s, but there is a growing sentiment among fans that it might be time for Shaw to seek out some new assistants. Lance Anderson and Tavita Pritchard have been with the program for years, and some worry that the stagnant offense is a reflection of a stagnant staff. If the Cardinal misses a bowl game this season, snapping its current ten-year streak, something will have to happen.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Hank: Lots of things will have to go right for the Cardinal to pull of the upset. While I’ve tried to convince myself that all of those thing might align on Saturday, I think the athleticism of both sides of the ball will carry the day for the Huskies.
Washington 31, Stanford 20.
Thanks Hank. Be sure to check out Go Mighty Card