Stanford has come to be known as a defensive-minded, fundamental program. That took a step backward last season, and not only because the Cardinal season was hijacked by the brilliance of running back Bryce Love. If anything, Love’s excellence overshadowed some of the regression.
Ranked No. 13 in the preseason Coaches Poll, Stanford could end up relying on the Heisman front runner even more so this year.
For only the second time in head coach David Shaw’s seven-year tenure, the Cardinal lost five games last season, the most Shaw has ever endured as a head coach. Winning the Pac-12 North took some of the sting out of that struggle, but the year still ended on a two-game losing streak.
Love was the story of Stanford’s 2017, exploding onto the scene despite the team struggling to a 1-2 start thanks to losses at USC and at San Diego State. The Cardinal then won seven of its next eight to force its way into the Pac-12 title game, falling 31-28 in a rematch to USC to lose out on a playoff-access bowl bid.
Love was six weeks into dealing with a bad ankle sprain by then, something he could not shake the second half of the season, limiting his relative effectiveness despite playing through it. From a Notre Dame perspective, watching Love take 20 carries for 125 yards in the regular-season finale stood in stark contrast to the entire Irish running back stable failing to fight through sprains and bruises.
Love’s hobbling was somewhat counteracted by then-sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello’s emergence. Costello took over the starting gig for the final six games, leading the way to scoring 30 or more points in four of Stanford’s last five games. He finished the year with 1,573 yards and a 58.8 percent completion rate, throwing 14 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions.
WHAT STANFORD LOST
Criticizing the Cardinal defense from a year ago as subpar for Stanford should stand out when now realizing it will be without two first-team Pac-12 defenders in tackle Harrison Phillips and safety Justin Reid, and a second-teamer in cornerback Quenton Meeks, along with linebacker Peter Kalambayi and defensive end Eric Cotton. They were the defense’s strengths.
Phillips: 100 tackles (as an interior defensive lineman) with 16 for loss including seven sacks.
Reid: 99 tackles with 6.5 for loss and five interceptions.
Meeks: 66 tackles with two interceptions and eight more passes broken up.
Kalambayi: 61 tackles with seven for loss including four sacks.
Cotton: 30 tackles with three sacks.
Offensively, the greatest loss is either former starter and now backup insurance quarterback Keller Chryst, who will be immediately eligible at Tennessee as a graduate transfer, or first-team Pac-12 tight end Dalton Schultz (22 catches for 212 yards and three scores).
WHAT STANFORD LOST IN THE SPRING
A chance to develop Costello. A hip injury kept him sidelined throughout the entirety of spring practices. With Chryst’s departure, that left third-string junior Jack Richardson taking all the snaps.
As well as Chryst played in the second half of 2017, he was still a first-year starter primarily looking to avoid mistakes. He did largely avoid them, but there was certainly room for improvement, both overall and in developing chemistry with his targets.
WHAT STANFORD GAINED
If the Cardinal defense outperforms meager expectations, it will probably have a pair of freshmen defensive ends to thank for that. Four-star recruits Thomas Booker and Andres Fox will both be given genuine chances to crack the lineup this year. Whenever Florida State (both), Clemson (Booker) and Alabama (Fox) recruit a defensive end, take it as a sign of talent. Yes, Notre Dame sought each, as well.
Speaking of former Irish targets, receiver Osiris St. Brown (Equanimeous’ younger, but not youngest, brother) will presumably reach the field after preserving a year of eligibility in 2017.
Most of all, though, Stanford gained Love’s health. At the least, he will be healthy to begin the season. If he can maintain it through the year, a college football-loving nation should be thankful for the blessing. It is hard to fathom improving on a season that finished with unanimous All-American honors and as the Heisman runner-up, but anyone who saw Love grimacing throughout last November knows it is within the proverbial world of possibility.
Already the winningest coach in Cardinal history at 73-22 (passing Pop Warner’s 71 wins last season the week before Notre Dame arrived in Palo Alto), Shaw has nothing to prove … except it Stanford get over the hump and into the College Football Playoff.
This is not likely the year to figure such out, but it goes to show how well he has done in following in Jim Harbaugh’s footsteps. (For thoroughness’ sake, Harbaugh went 29-21 in four years, a .580 winning percentage, well behind Shaw’s .785.)
Love has been discussed, as has Costello.
His preferred receivers have not been. Junior JJ Arcega-Whiteside and senior Trenton Irwin lead the way, along with last year’s Nos. 3 (sophomore tight end Kaden Smith) and 4 (sophomore receiver Connor Wedington).
Arcega-Whiteside: 48 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns.
Irwin: 43 catches for 461 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith: 23 catches for 414 yards, an average of 18 yards per reception, and five scores. He caught three passes for 65 yards and a lead-taking ouchdown against the Irish.
Wedington: 31 catches for 243 yards.
The Cardinal also return four offensive linemen, losing only guard David Bright. That group is highlighted by sophomore tackle Walker Little, who was limited by injury to six starts in his debut campaign.
This is not meant to sound entirely negative. At its worst under Shaw, as last year was, Stanford still trots out a defense that gives up little without contest. That said, it was his worst defense, and it had been trending that way for a few seasons. In both 2015 and 2016, the Cardinal gave up 368 yards per game, then the most of the Shaw era. That skyrocketed to 405 yards last season.
Aside from Shaw’s first season (21.9 points per game in 2011), the last three seasons have also seen the most points allowed per game by his defense: 22.6 in 2015, 20.4 in 2016 and 22.7 in 2017.
Forcing 28 turnovers helped keep that last figure manageable, but losing the aforementioned defensive stalwarts may knock out that crutch from underneath Shaw’s defense. The defensive line returns little experience or depth, setting up the unproven linebackers and secondary for trouble.
Love may be enough to outpace those defensive concerns, but that is asking a lot, even of the electrifying speedster. Stanford’s schedule will not make life much easier. The week before traveling to South Bend, the Cardinal head to Oregon. November includes trips to both Washington and UCLA, now led by Chip Kelly.
For the second-straight year, Stanford’s schedule opens with San Diego State and USC. That should not go as poorly as it did last season, in part because the games are at The Farm, not on the road, but the Aztecs’ perennial rushing attack could lead to issues in this defensive line’s debut.
Nonetheless, preseason polling picked Stanford third in the conference and second in its division (behind Washington). The floor is rather high. Bookmakers offer a win total over/under of 8.5 with still rather even odds.