By King Jemison
Stanford football got off to a hot start in last week’s game at USC, taking a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. From that point on, the Trojans outscored the Cardinal 42-3. Stanford looked more outmatched than perhaps ever before in head coach David Shaw’s nine year tenure. USC whipped the Cardinal up front on both sides of the ball, and the Trojans’ speedy wide receivers ran circles around the Stanford secondary. The disastrous performance against a Pac-12 rival killed the high hopes of most Stanford fans. Now, the Cardinal must hit the road again to take on a quality opponent. But with the pressure off and expectations gone, perhaps Stanford can find redemption against the 17th-ranked UCF Knights.
Senior quarterback K.J. Costello will return to lead the offense after missing last week’s game due to the vicious hit he took in the opening win over Northwestern. Costello got off to a solid start in that game, completing 16 of 20 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in just two quarters. Stanford needs major production from the preseason All Pac-12 honoree after two consecutive games scoring zero second half offensive points.
On the other side of the ball, Stanford will likely face a true freshman quarterback in Dillon Gabriel for the second week in a row after USC’s Kedon Slovis carved up the Cardinal defense to the tune of 377 yards and three touchdowns. After a promising opening performance holding Northwestern to just 117 yards through the air, Stanford showed that its pass defense still has plenty of the same problems that plagued it last season.
Going 1-1 on this difficult road trip was always going to be a success for Stanford. But to reach that mark, the Cardinal must travel to Orlando and take down a UCF team that has won 24 consecutive regular season games and has not lost at home since 2016. Here are three keys to a streak-snapping and season-saving win for Stanford.
1) Push them around
The Stanford offensive line came into the season with major questions, and it now has to answer those questions without consensus preseason All-American junior left tackle Walker Little, who will be out for the season with a left knee injury. The line looked fine against Northwestern and in the first half against USC, but it was utterly helpless against the relentless Trojans front seven in the second half. The Cardinal could not generate anything in the run game, and junior backup quarterback Davis Mills was running for his life almost all game. Stanford simply does not have an elite offensive line in 2019. That being said, the UCF game should be a really favorable matchup for the beleaguered unit.
UCF is a Group of Five team lacking the Power Five talent of a perennial Pac-12 powerhouse like Stanford. The Knights make up for their recruiting disadvantages by finding underrated athletes with untapped potential and a lot of speed. Where they suffer from their second-class college football citizenship is along the offensive and defensive lines.
This season, UCF returns only one defensive lineman with any experience. Through the first two games of the year, the defensive line has performed well, but that was against Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic. Stanford will be the first real test for this new look unit, and that should allow the Cardinal to have more success on the ground and give Costello enough time to pick apart the UCF secondary.
2) Make UCF beat you through the air
UCF ranks seventh nationally in rushing offense this season, averaging 312 yards per game on the ground. Though their first two games were admittedly against cupcake opponents, it appears that the Knights will once again have one of the best rushing attacks in college football. But unlike the past three seasons, UCF will not have the golden arm of McKenzie Milton guiding the offense due to the horrific knee injury he suffered last November. And without Milton running the show, the passing offense has taken a major step back.
At this point, it is still unclear who will start at quarterback for UCF on Saturday. True freshman Dillon Gabriel is the most likely candidate after he started in place of the injured Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. But Wimbush could still win back the job, and Milton’s 2018 backup Darriel Mack Jr. is now recovered from an offseason injury and might also enter the fray. Regardless of who gets the start, it does not appear that UCF will have a deadly aerial attack in 2019. Wimbush, Gabriel and fourth string QB Quadry Jones have combined to complete just 53% of their passes against weak opponents so far this season.
Stanford ranks 94th in passing defense and 35th in rushing defense to this point. Just like last season, the Cardinal defend the run much better than the pass. That should be a good thing against the Knights. Stanford can sell out to stop the powerful UCF running game and force whoever is playing QB for the Knights to beat them through the air. If UCF has to win this game with its passing offense, Stanford should be alright.
3) Sustain the start
Stanford opened up a double-digit first half lead in both of their first two games, going up 10-0 against Northwestern and 17-3 against USC. But in both of those games, the Cardinal scored zero second half points with their offense. Northwestern’s offense was so putrid that it did not matter, though that game never should have been close in the fourth quarter. The awful second half against USC obviously led to one of the most lopsided losses of the Shaw era. Stanford should have every chance to pick up a major road victory over a Top 25 team in UCF, but it must maintain the momentum in the second half to secure the win.
Costello’s return alone should jumpstart the offense and allow it to continue running smoothly even when the running game gets bogged down. The senior QB can freelance with the best of them, and his gunslinging mentality covers up a lot of Stanford’s offensive deficiencies. The rest of his team needs to match Costello’s energy and engagement over 60 minutes.
Spectrum Stadium will be a hostile environment on Saturday, with the Florida heat and humidity serving as perhaps the most formidable foe. Stanford can not allow that steamy afternoon environment to wilt their resolve in the second half. But if the Cardinal play up to their potential for four quarters, they have a golden opportunity to escape Orlando with a statement victory.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.