There’s a scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest receives a letter from Lieutenant Dan saying that they had invested their shrimping money in “some kind of fruit company” (aka Apple) and that “we don’t have to worry about money no more.” In classic Gumpian fashion, Forrest replies, “That’s good! One less thing.” Stanford finds itself in a similar position after two games. Coming into the season, the two biggest questions were:
- Can the passing game shoulder the offensive load when the run isn’t working?
- Can the defense be elite?
The first two games offered emphatic answers to these questions, thanks to a breakout performance in the passing game against San Diego State and a dominant showing by the defense against USC. Plenty more questions still remain, but Stanford’s identity is beginning to take shape. The Cardinal offense is built on big plays on the ground and through the air, while the defense plays a “bend, but don’t break” style and refuses to give up big plays.
Stanford had a similar identity last year, but they’re much better at it in 2018. Last season, the offense relied on big plays, but those were almost entirely from Bryce Love in the running game. By the end of the season, KJ Costello had developed a strong connection with JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Kaden Smith that allowed for some big plays through the air. But when teams bottled up Love and the Stanford run game, they were usually able to completely shut down the Cardinal offense. This year, San Diego State tested that hypothesis by totally selling out to stop the run. KJ and JJ made them pay for it, as KJ delivered 226 of his 332 passing yards and three of his four touchdowns to the Arcegatron. Defenses can no longer ignore the Stanford passing game, and Bryce benefitted from that change against USC. After a disappointing opening game with just 29 yards on the ground, the preseason Heisman favorite had 136 yards and a touchdown against the Trojans.
The defense was also a bend-don’t-break unit in 2017, as they were 32nd nationally in scoring defense but 67th nationally in total defense. They gave up a lot of yards, but not many points. So far this year, Stanford is much improved on both fronts, as the Cardinal are currently the 3rd best scoring defense and the 30th best total defense in the nation. Lance Anderson’s bunch seems to tighten up just when they need to most. USC got inside the Stanford 40 yard line six times but only came away with three points. The Stanford defense forces teams to drive the entire length of the field because they rarely surrender chunk plays. Usually, offenses are incapable of sustaining such long drives before they stall out or turn it over.
Of course, having on offense reliant on big plays and a defense reliant on not giving them up is risky. The Cardinal offense averaged 12 yards to go on third down. Costello and his huge receiving targets were able to convert a few of those, but Stanford must be more efficient on first and second down in order to move the ball against elite defenses like Notre Dame and Washington. And giving up 332 total yards as the Cardinal defense did against USC will rarely yield only three points, especially when your opponent is not led by a mistake-prone true freshman QB.
That being said, it’s nearly impossible to keep this Stanford offense from busting any big plays all game. Love is too fast, and Arcega-Whiteside and Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson are too big. Eventually, the offensive line will give Bryce just enough of a crease, or KJ will throw a deep ball to just the right spot. The Cardinal offense might be feast or famine, but thanks to this bevy of playmakers, they’re still eating pretty well.
Meanwhile, the Stanford defense has been feasting on opposing quarterbacks, as the Cardinal are currently tied for third nationally with 4.5 sacks per game. Outside linebacker Joey Alfieri has 2.5 sacks on his own, part of some really solid overall linebacking play. Inside linebacker Sean Barton has 19 tackles in two games, and Bobby Okereke made 10 stops against USC and forced a safety against San Diego State. The Cardinal defensive line is not going to dominate teams on its own, but that may not matter if the linebackers can continue to get pressure on the quarterback and make tackles in the run game.
Plus, the Cardinal secondary has been fantastic, making it extremely difficult for opposing offenses to generate big plays in the passing game. They had 11 pass break-ups against USC and free safety Malik Antoine came up with two huge interceptions to seal the game. Redshirt freshman corner Paulson Adebo is rapidly becoming a star, as he already has four PBUs and made plays all over the field against the Trojans. If Stanford continues to get reliable tackling and great pressure from the linebackers combined with playmaking from the secondary, the bend-don’t-break style will keep teams out of the endzone.
The exciting early play from Stanford’s passing game and defense have raised its ceiling this year. The Cardinal really can be a playoff contender, but perhaps their biggest limiting factor is the schedule. With road games coming up against #18 Oregon, #8 Notre Dame, #23 Arizona State, and #10 Washington, Stanford must be a good road team if they want to win the Pac-12 or go to a New Year’s Six Bowl. Last year, they struggled away from Stanford Stadium, as David Shaw and crew went just 2-3 in true road games and 1-2 at neutral sites. Stanford has already improved on two major weaknesses from last year. If they can improve upon a third and find ways to win on the road, it could be a historic season on the Farm. But for now, we’ll listen to Forrest Gump and say, “That’s good! One less thing.”
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