Stanford is sitting pretty right now. At 3-0 and ranked 7th in the country, the Cardinal have breezed through their first three tests because they were simply the better team. San Diego State and UC Davis didn’t have the talent to slow down the Cardinal playmakers or move the ball on Lance Anderson’s surprisingly stout defense. USC has the talent, but they are still a mess at this point after two straight ugly road losses. Although Stanford hasn’t looked perfect, they haven’t yet experienced any fourth quarter stress because they haven’t met an opponent of equal caliber.
Stanford is about to take the infamous PAT (Playoff Aptitude Test). The Cardinal might well be capable of a College Football Playoff run, but they probably need to get through this stretch undefeated to be a true contender. And if they hit the road and return to the Farm with two losses, then we’ll know without a doubt that Stanford is a pretender. Like the SAT or ACT, the PAT can make or break the Cardinal college (football) dreams.
This road trip has been looming over Stanford since before the season. Their September (and late August) schedule was perhaps the nation’s toughest on paper, with three matchups against ranked teams. Since USC has plummeted out of the rankings, the schedule looks slightly easier now. But by the end of the month, the Cardinal will have played four quality FBS opponents and one decent FCS squad. And after playing their first three games in Stanford Stadium against currently unranked teams, they will now face two straight ranked opponents on the road. If they get through this stretch unscathed, the schedule looks much easier.
The Cardinal only have one currently ranked team left on the schedule after September. That November 3rd tilt with #10 Washington in Seattle is likely the toughest game of the season, but outside of that it’s pretty benign. Like second semester high school students, if they get good enough PAT scores, Stanford can coast through the rest of the year.
In order to achieve those quality PAT scores, the Cardinal will have to study hard. With that in mind, here’s a study guide for what Stanford must do in order to ace the PAT and move into the College Football Playoff discussion:
1) Run the ball CONSISTENTLY
Coming into the season, the running game looked like the #1 strength of this Stanford team. With Bryce Love and four starting lineman returning, it looked like Love could become the first-ever Cardinal running back with two straight 2,000 yard seasons. So far, Bryce is far from that pace. After only 29 yards against San Diego State, he bounced back with 136 against USC before missing the UC Davis game with an undisclosed injury. He will be back against Oregon, but that doesn’t mean the Stanford running game will dominate. The heralded offensive line has struggled to generate holes for all the Cardinal running backs. Stanford is tied for 112th in the country with 115 rushing yards per game. And most of that production has come on big plays. Tavita Pritchard’s offense has been stuck behind the chains far too often after first down run plays go backward. In a hostile road environment, third and long is a tall task. Oregon has a stout rushing defense (ranked 9th nationally in rushing yards per attempt) and a less stout passing defense (47th in passing YPA), but Stanford still must find some consistency in the running game in order to sustain drives.
2) Get more accuracy from KJ Costello
Through three games, Costello’s accuracy has been fine. He’s completing 61.4% of his passes, good for 62nd nationally among eligible quarterbacks. His numbers are probably unfairly low since the Stanford offense affords KJ relatively few easy completions and relatively many deep pass attempts. But he’s still missing too many open receivers. He’s managed to airmail 6’7” tight end Colby Parkinson on multiple occasions this season, and another pass sailing over the head of 6’5” tight end Kaden Smith went for a UC Davis interception. He rarely hits his receivers in stride on deep balls, which has led to incompletions and also prevented some big passing plays from going for touchdowns. Having such huge and talented receiving targets bails KJ out at times, since guys like JJ Arcega-Whiteside can turn an underthrown deep ball into a big gain. That being said, KJ has still improved dramatically from last year. He’ll never be the most efficient quarterback, statistically, because of his deep-ball heavy gunslinger style, but if KJ can continue to improve his accuracy on those long passes, he can be the best quarterback in the Pac-12. It would be great to see that improved accuracy right away, though, because passing efficiency will be essential against such tough defenses on the road.
3) Defense? Just keep doing what you’re doing
It’s hard to believe that Stanford’s defense has carried the team to a Top 10 ranking, but here we are.
Though the offense has been underwhelming at times, the defense has been consistently good and shown flashes of being great. After allowing San Diego State to reach the end zone in the first quarter, Lance Anderson’s bunch went 10 straight quarters without surrendering another touchdown before UC Davis scored on a fluky pass at the end of the game. The Cardinal are now ranked first nationally in scoring defense at 7.7 points per game. They’ve collected nine sacks and six turnovers. Ranked 22nd nationally in total defense at 301 yards per game, Anderson’s bend-don’t break defense is nearly impossible to break and tough to bend as well. Oregon’s touted passing offense led by QB Justin Herbert will be the toughest challenge yet for this Cardinal defense. If they dominate again, Stanford will enter the conversation for best defense in the country.
Oregon is almost certainly the best team Stanford has faced so far, but it’s hard to say how good they really are after facing three weak opponents. The Ducks could come out looking like a Top 10 team, especially with a raucous home crowd and College Gameday atmosphere. But I think Stanford will benefit from having already played quality opponents. KJ Costello should have a nice day against a soft Oregon secondary, and Stanford’s secondary absolutely has the advantage on Oregon’s receivers. The Ducks defense will stop the Cardinal run game and keep it pretty low-scoring but Stanford wins a fourth quarter game to start their PAT right:
Stanford 23, Oregon 17
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