KJ and JJ. It’s a combination that is quickly becoming one of the best in the country. Get the ball inside the 20 – preferably inside the 10 – and you can expect KJ to throw it up and JJ to bring it down. Against Notre Dame last Saturday, though, the Cardinal only made one red zone trip, which resulted in an Arcega-Whiteside touchdown. For Costello and his Cardinal teammates, Stanford’s failure to get the ball into the red zone more often was one of their big takeaways from the 38-17 beatdown at the hands of the Fighting Irish.
“When we get down to the red zone we know we love being down there and it falls back on me for not getting down there as much as we like,” Costello said. “We only had one drive in the red zone. We cracked the fringe one time. That’s just not nearly enough.”
The Cardinal are going to hope for more short-yardage red zone plays this Saturday, when they welcome Utah to Stanford Stadium at 7:30 p.m. The Cardinal know that the KJ to JJ connection is their bread and butter and if they want to start another winning streak, they’ll have to put their offense in a better position to make those plays more realistic.
If there was ever an opposing secondary to help get the Cardinal’s passing game rolling again, it might be Utah’s. In a 28-24 loss last week, the Utes allowed Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew to throw for 445 yards and three touchdowns. The Utes’ pass defense gave up a number of big passing plays, which bodes well for Arcega-Whiteside, but also for sophomore receiver Osiris St. Brown, who is a speedy deep threat that hasn’t emerged as much as the coaching staff may have expected. This might be his big week to break out.
The Cardinal have to be relieved to return to the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium after a brutal two-week road trip that included primetime games in Eugene against Oregon and in South Bend, two of the most hostile environments in all of college football. The Cardinal looked worn down during last week’s game and will hopefully be well-rested and fired up to get another conference win in front of their home crowd.
Star running back Bryce Love left last week’s game with a left ankle injury – the same injury that pestered him for much of the second half of last season. It’s still unclear if he will play, but even if he does, it just hasn’t been the same type of season for Love this year. Opposing defenses have done a good job of game-planning for him, and Utah should be no different. The Utes’ rush defense is always physical, something that Coach David Shaw expects to be the same on Saturday.
“Typical Utah – they’ve got big guys that are long [and] athletic,” Shaw said. “They’re really good on the defensive line.”
It’s quite possible that Utah has the advantage in the rushing game, not because of how dominant the Utah rushing attack is, but because of how miserable the Stanford rush defense looked last week. The Irish had 272 yards on the ground, and the imposing Stanford defensive line that everyone is used to seeing was nowhere to be found. In fact, this might be one of the weakest teams in the trenches that Coach Shaw has had in a long time. On both sides of the ball, Stanford’s lines are failing to get much of a push and with a physical Utah team in the building, Shaw has to hope that his big guys fix things up quickly.
Stanford looked overmatched against the Irish and didn’t play their brand of mistake-free, run-it-down-your-throat football that most expect. There weren’t a whole lot of bright spots in their performance, but for Shaw, the mere fact that the Cardinal kept it competitive for most of the game was important.
“If you make mistakes against really good football teams, they make you pay for it. If we can play below our level and hang with one of the top teams in America, I’m curious to see what happens when we play at our level,” Shaw said.
While last Saturday’s loss may have ended Stanford’s chances at competing in the College Football Playoff, it had absolutely no effect on their Pac-12 title hopes. From here on out, as Stanford plays an all Pac-12 schedule, each games carries the significance that with a loss, any hope for a Rose Bowl appearance may be gone. Utah is the first test in a series of many tough conference opponents. If the Cardinal can turn things around and get their red zone offense firing again on Saturday, it won’t be too long before last week’s shellacking is nothing more than a blip in an otherwise exciting and meaningful 2018 season.
Contact Gregory Block at gblock’at’stanford.edu.