No. 14 Stanford received a harsh lesson in their blowout loss to No. 6 Notre Dame last week: The team that wins the line of scrimmage usually wins the game. The Irish thoroughly dominated the Cardinal along both lines, particularly in the matchup between Notre Dame’s incredible defensive front and Stanford’s struggling offensive line. Although the Cardinal kept it close for three quarters, eventually that dominant advantage in the trenches turned into a dominant 38-17 Irish victory. It doesn’t get any easier for the Tunnel Workers Union this week. Utah might not have the talent of Notre Dame, but their front seven is one of the sturdiest in the nation. Though the Utes may be coming off two straight losses, they’ve been close in every game and absolutely have the capability to pull off an upset. Here’s three keys to make sure they don’t.
1) Protect KJ Costello.
The Utes have the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the country. The Cardinal have the 120th-ranked rushing offense. Who do you think is going to win that matchup? If Stanford is going to move the ball, it will have to be through the air. In the Oregon game, Costello proved he can win a game by himself. Frankly, he proved that against San Diego State as well. Stanford’s passing attack is good enough to carry the offense even when they struggle to run the ball. But in order for Costello and crew to even have a chance, the offensive line must give him time to throw. Against Notre Dame, he faced relentless pressure that completely disrupted any ability to go deep. When the Cardinal had to air it out and play catch-up, they couldn’t do it because Costello would just end up on his back. First of all, if he keeps taking hits like that, Costello is going to be knocked out of the game and former walk-on Slingin’ Jack Richardson will have to take over in Davis Mills’ absence. But even if Costello stays healthy, the passing game will not be successful if teams can rush four and still get to the quarterback. Stanford has the receiving weapons. They have the quarterback. But do they have the offensive line to keep him upright?
The good news is that Utah is 69th nationally in sacks per game, so it might be a decent matchup for Stanford’s pass blocking. Either way, Stanford’s ability or inability to keep the Utes out of the backfield will likely decide the game.
2) Stop Zack Moss and the Utah run game.
Despite Utah’s solid defense, the reason they’re sitting at 2-2 with zero Power Five victories is their absolutely abysmal offense. The Utes are currently tied for 109th in the FBS total offense standings (Stanford isn’t much better at 95th). They’ve faced some tough defenses, particularly in their two losses to No. 10 Washington and Washington State, but that still doesn’t make up for their severe limitations both passing and running the ball. Their own coach, Kyle Whittingham, called them, “a pretty average football team,” after their narrow 17-6 victory over Northern Illinois. That being said, Zack Moss is one of the better running backs in the Pac-12, and he could provide a spark for the Utah offense if Stanford continues to defend the run like they did against Notre Dame. The Cardinal are currently surrendering 152.8 rushing yards per game, putting them at 72nd in the nation. The Irish gained 272 yards on the ground last week, including 161 by Dexter Williams who averaged 7.7 yards per carry. San Diego State’s Juwan Washington and Oregon’s CJ Verdell also rushed for well over 100 yards against the Cardinal. When Stanford has faced good running backs, they have struggled to slow them down.
Utah should not be able to move the ball very well against Lance Anderson’s defense. Stanford’s secondary should dominate the matchup against Tyler Huntley and the Utah passing game. But if Zack Moss gets going on the ground, the Utes could put themselves in position for an upset.
3) Gotta get creative at some point.
Bryce Love’s status is very much in doubt heading into this game. He’s currently walking around with a boot, and David Shaw has called him a “late-week decision.” Plus, as I mentioned before, this matchup with the Utah rushing defense is not good for Stanford. The Cardinal will not be able to win the game on the ground, whether or not Love plays. But will they try anyway?
Too often against Notre Dame, Stanford went run-run-pass-punt. That was literally the drive chart on three separate Cardinal possessions, including the first two of the game. When facing a stout defense, you can’t be that predictable. Perhaps when Stanford had the best offensive line in the Pac-12, they could just run it down the opponent’s throat no matter the defense. But they don’t have that caliber of offensive line anymore, so it’s time to get a little less stubborn. Stanford may not have the Pac-12’s best offensive line, but they do have the best collection of wide receivers and tight ends on the West Coast. Offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard, a former Stanford QB, has shown more willingness to get creative and rely on the passing game. Still, we haven’t yet seen Stanford consistently turn to the pass until they start trailing. Against this Utah front, if you wait until you’re already down to start throwing the ball, it may be too late.
Stanford needs to accept that its identity is not consistent with its reality. “Intellectual brutality” and a stubborn reliance on the run game just won’t work with this year’s team. But putting the season in the hands of KJ Costello, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Kaden Smith, Trenton Irwin, Colby Parkinson and Osiris St. Brown … That just might lead to another Pac-12 title.
Overall, Stanford should be able to “out-talent” Utah and collect an easy win without too much fourth quarter stress. The Utes defense will keep it low scoring, and Zack Moss will get his. But if Stanford can put this game away early, it would say a lot about the Cardinal’s season hopes. Either way, a win over Utah gets Stanford one step closer to a Pac-12 title. We’ll see if they can do it at 7:30 p.m. in Stanford Stadium with ESPN providing the television coverage.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.