Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Davis Mills is down to just 6.0 YPA this season, but has a very good completion percentage. Is it a lot of short passing? Is he checking down a lot? What would you say Mills has done best so far?
Hank Waddles: The thing to remember about Davis Mills is that even though he was the top quarterback prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, he has only started eight games at the collegiate level. On Saturday you’ll probably see evidence of the skills that gave him that lofty rating four years ago, but you’ll also see some mistakes born of his inexperience. He has a strong, accurate arm and shows touch when necessary, but there are times when he has trouble finding his second and third reads.
Another issue has been his comfort at the line of scrimmage. Stanford quarterbacks typically call three plays in the huddle before trying to check into the best of the three based on what they see from the defense, and that process seemed a bit slow two weeks ago, but a bit better last week against Cal. As for his low yards per attempt, that’s largely due to what seems to be a simplification of the Stanford offense. The play calling has gotten stagnant for long stretches of each game, possibly because of the tremendous inexperience on that side of the ball. We did see things open up a bit during the second half last week, so hopefully that trend will continue.
UWDP: How would you assess the offensive line play so far this season. Has Foster Sarrell rounded into a solid right tackle? Tell us about the running back duo of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat.
Hank: Two years ago the offensive line was hit hard by injury, but that was nothing compared to what happened last season, when there were only six healthy scholarship linemen at points. That completely limited what the offense was able to do, so it’s been refreshing to see things look closer to what we’re used to seeing from the Cardinal with some occasional rotations and some six- and seven-linemen formations when necessary. That’s led to greater success in the running game, but it still hasn’t been as consistent as it should be. Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat have proven to be a nice combination. Jones will get most of carries, and he’ll also catch a few balls out of the backfield, but Peat isn’t much of a drop-off. As for Foster Sarrell, it was expected that he’d either be in the NFL right now or leading the best offensive line in the Pac-12, but he’s battled injuries throughout his Stanford career. He’s been healthier this season and playing better, however.
UWDP: Michael Wilson leads all Stanford receivers in total yards and receptions. Simi Fehoko and Connor Wedington have been productive as well. Who else is a threat to catch the ball? Have the receivers performed well as a group?
Hank: Coming into the season most observers agreed this was the best group of wide receivers in school history, but the offense hasn’t been consistent enough for this to come to fruition. Once again, I blame some of this on the lack of creative play calling. Here’s something for you to watch for. On 3rd and medium (3-7 yards), there’s been a tendency to come out with three or four receivers who all run the same route — run straight to the sticks and then turn around. An offense with a five-star quarterback and a dynamic receiving corps shouldn’t be running plays like this. But the hope here is that the increased practice time will lead allow them to open the playbook up a bit more. We shall see. Oh, but to answer your questions about the receivers — Michael Wilson is Mills’s favorite target, Simi Fehoko is a deep threat, and Connor Wedington is a pure athlete who will run a variety of screens and slants. (Hopefully.)
UWDP: Stanford is 78th in scoring defense allowing 31 points per game, and 117th against the run. They have been much better defending the pass (37th nationally). How has the play of the defense been in your opinion? Who has stood out?
Hank: The defense has been hard to watch at times, but they’ve been good in stretches. If the offensive isn’t able to win the time of possession battle by a considerable amount, things will be difficult for the Stanford defense. Sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker is the star of this unit, and if we here is name called often on Saturday, that will be a good sign.
One area of concern for the Cardinal will be how the linebackers are able to defend in pass coverage, especially against tight end Cade Otton. Overall, this is a young unit, so another concern is a tendency to give up big plays due to confusion or missed assignments. They’ll have to tighten that up on Saturday.
UWDP: Tell us the worst of Stanford’s Covid19 blues.
Hank: Stanford has handled their protocols exceptionally well, but they’ve still had lots of well-publicized Covid issues. All the players have been tested 8-9 times each week with zero positives since July, but three false negatives kept Mills, Wedington, and defensive end Trey LaBounty out of the opener against Oregon and in quarantine for almost all of the following week. And now, just as they’ve recovered from that (and the cancelled Washington State game) they’ve been effectively banished from their home facilities by the Santa Clara County prohibition against contact sports. The Cardinal have been in Seattle since Tuesday, and following Saturday’s game they’ll go directly to Corvallis to prep for the Oregon State game that’s been moved from Stanford to Corvallis. All things considered, it could be worse.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Hank: I think it’s possible for Stanford to beat Washington this weekend, but only if the Huskies sleepwalk a bit longer than they did against Utah, and only if the Stanford offense takes another step forward. Unfortunately, I think all of that’s a bit too much to ask. I won’t be completely surprised if Stanford pulls the upset, but a 31-17 Washington win is more likely.
Thanks Hank. Be sure to check out Go Mighty Card