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Football roundtable: 4 straight for the Cardinal?

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After three straight wins on the road, Stanford is headed for the bounceback year many expected in 2020. Stanford will practice in Santa Barbara to prepare for Saturday’s game against UCLA. The Daily’s Jibriel Taha, Sofia Scekic and Ells Boone gathered for one last time to tie up loose ends.  

The Daily ran the headline “Season Bruined” after UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson picked apart the Stanford defense last season. How does Stanford prevent a repeat performance?

Jibriel Taha (JT): Defensively, it starts with containing a mobile quarterback like Thompson-Robinson. DTR ran for 66 yards against the Cardinal a year ago, and the Cardinal must solve their recurring issues with mobile quarterbacks for the team to be successful on Saturday. Offensively, it’s a much easier fix, as last year’s issues are this year’s strengths. UCLA recorded seven sacks against the Cardinal last year, but this year the Cardinal offensive line is healthy and one of the best, if not the best, in the conference. Additionally, senior quarterback Davis Mills is playing at a very high level, whereas in last year’s game junior quarterback Jack West finished with a QBR of 5.6 in his first career start. Finally, the Cardinal only ran for 55 yards in last year’s contest, which shows no signs of repeating itself the way the offensive line and sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat are playing this season.

Sofia Scekic (SS): If Stanford continues to play at the same high level it has been playing at for the last 3.5 games, it will finish the season on a four-game winning streak. Mills is a huge step up from West and despite the wide receiver corps missing multiple starters, the improved running game makes the offense sufficiently multi-dimensional and eases the pain of losing the team’s top wide receivers. Because of Mills and the running game, the offense is already in much better shape than it was in last year’s matchup. The special teams unit has also been playing very well recently, and like I said in last week’s roundtable, it should be counted on to make a timely play or two each week to alter the outcome of the game. Defensively, stopping the run will be crucial: The Bruins average just over 220 rushing yards per game, while the Cardinal give up an average of 208 rushing yards per game. The team is also fresh off a performance in which they allowed Oregon State to run for 237 yards and nearly ride their run game to victory. UCLA knows the Cardinal have struggled with stopping the run, so expect head coach Chip Kelly to come into the game with a run-heavy plan for Thompson-Robinson and the rest of the UCLA offense. If the Cardinal are unable to stop the run, it will be difficult for the team to finish the season with a win. 

Ells Boone (EB): Jibriel basically said it. Stanford’s defense has to be able to defend against a dual-threat quarterback. They have not been able to do so successfully yet this season and I hope they have learned from their past miscues. On the offensive side, Davis Mills will have to continue his stellar play. This may turn into a shoot-out and the offense cannot afford to fall behind. If the offensive line continues to dominate, I think Stanford has what it takes to win. 

Which player, position group, phase or otherwise did you see make the most progress in 2020?

JT: The offensive line. The unit was decimated by injuries last year, and even with the opt-out of senior tackle Walker Little, they have been superb in 2020. Senior center Drew Dalman has been stellar, as he and senior tackle Foster Sarell have led the way for what is a young group overall. Guys like sophomore offensive linemen Jake Hornibrook, Branson Bragg and Barrett Miller, as well as freshman and consensus five-star recruit tackle Myles Hinton, project a bright future for the unit as the Cardinal get back to their identity.

SS: Likely due, at least in part, to the improved play of the offensive line, the running game has felt to me like the position group that made the most progress since last season. Cameron Scarlett ’19 led the team in 2019 with a respectable 840 rushing yards on 201 carries for 4.2 yards per carry, but it never felt like the run game could truly take over a game and carry the Cardinal to victory if necessary. I think that has changed this year. Jones and Peat are a true one-two punch at running back and the team is averaging over 130 rushing yards per game; by contrast, last year the Cardinal averaged 105 yards per game — the lowest mark by far over the past decade. Quarterback play last season was inconsistent, with K.J. Costello ’19, Mills and West all starting at least one game. The run game should have been able to pick up the quarterbacks’ slack, yet it had one of its worst years in recent Stanford history. Mills has played at a high enough level this year where the run game has not really been asked to put the offense on its back, but if the Oregon game was any indication (where Jones and Peat combined for just under 200 yards and two touchdowns), the run game does have the ability to carry the team this season. 

EB: The offensive line definitely made the most progress as a position group but I will go with special teams as the phase that made the most improvement. Stanford’s special teams quite literally has changed games this season, with the blocked extra point against Cal being the most notable instance. Two blocked kicks against Cal, a blocked extra point against Washington and great field position off of kickoffs are some of the highlights from that unit this year. Coach Pete Alamar’s group has been praised time and time again by Coach Shaw and for good reason. Hopefully they keep it going. 

Where does Stanford need to improve heading into next year? Have you seen any developments (in recruiting, coaching, vaccinology) that give you hope?

JT: There’s still time to turn it around, but Stanford is not having the best recruiting year so far, currently sitting at #57 in the 247Sports rankings. The Cardinal has brought in top 25 classes six of the past seven years, so they have some work to do to get to that mark. The Cardinal are set up well for next year so this isn’t a pressing issue and teams don’t always need to have stellar recruiting classes depending on their roster outlook, but what is worrisome to me is seeing Bay Area rival Cal sitting at #23 with four four-star recruits at the moment compared to Stanford’s one. It’s no time to panic unless this becomes a trend, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

SS: The defense has been shaky this season, and the lack of pass rush is concerning. A year ago, the Cardinal sacked the opposing quarterback 27 times, led by Casey Toohill ’20 who recorded eight. This year, through five games, the team has six sacks, led by senior defensive end Thomas Schaffer with three. While the sample size is smaller (five games versus 12), I’m not convinced the team would be putting up noteworthy sack numbers with a full slate of games. Taking down the opposing quarterback consistently is an easy way to make him uncomfortable and disrupt an offensive rhythm and gameplan, and it is something that the team needs to do better next year. Junior defensive end Thomas Booker is the only non-senior to record a sack this season, so it’s not clear where a consistent pass rush will come from next season but should be a point of emphasis this offseason for defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. 

EB: Stanford’s defense is what needs to improve the most, but there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful for next year. This three-game winning streak is showing what the Cardinal are capable of and if Coach Shaw can get some of the seniors to come back for a fifth year, next year’s team should be even better. Davis Mills will (hopefully) be back next year, along with the running back duo of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. Most of the wide receivers should be back, including top targets Michael Wilson and Simi Fehoko. The offensive line will hopefully continue its improvement and be even more dominant come next fall. The 2021 recruiting class is rated the worst of the Coach Shaw era but there are a few pieces that fit major needs, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Finally, with the vaccine hopefully being made available to the public by spring or summer, next year’s college football season just may be a normal one. 

Coaches and players are not allowed to play the “what if” game, but Shaw invited speculation with postgame comments in Corvallis. If Davis Mills does not have a false positive, what could have been Stanford’s 2020 trajectory?

JT: If not for the false positive, I think it’s very reasonable to say, all else unchanged, the Cardinal win the division and head to LA Memorial Coliseum on Friday with the conference title on the line. With Mills only getting one day of practice before the Colorado game, head coach David Shaw’s assessment that they essentially lost him for a game and a half is spot on. The offense was out of sync in the first half of that game, and based on the improvement we saw later in the game, the false positive was probably the difference in the result. Of course, the defense was horrid that game as well and could have won it regardless of the Mills situation, so it’s not all on the false positive, but it likely would have swung the game and thus division in the Cardinal’s favor. I’m not nearly as convinced it would have changed the Oregon result, but if the offense connected on some simple plays early on, the Cardinal would have been up at least 10 at the half. Then there’s the bowl game implications. If the Cardinal had won the division, would they have opted out of the Alamo Bowl if they lost to USC in the championship game? Surely if they had won the conference they would have played the New Year’s Six Bowl. But, the season ends Saturday. The “what if” game is incredibly frustrating for Stanford fans this year, and all we can do is hope we’re able enjoy a full slate of Cardinal football next year.

SS: I agree with Jibriel that Stanford would have won its division and would be in the process of gearing up for the conference championship. I don’t think the result of the Oregon game changes, but I think we would have seen the team play better through the first half of the Colorado game and ultimately walk away with a win. Mills is a talented quarterback who is the clear leader of the offense, so the false positive controversy undoubtedly threw the offense out of sync for a couple weeks. While the play on the defensive side of the ball has been, at times, concerning, the offense has clearly improved by a lot since 2019 and I’m confident that the Cardinal would be a one-loss team without Mills’s false positive. I honestly don’t know what would have happened with bowl games if the Cardinal win, or at least play in, the conference championship game, but it would have been nice to see the team represent the Pac-12 in a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. Again, like Jibriel said, the best we can do now is hope the team’s recent run of success continues and we are able to watch Stanford football at full strength throughout all of next season. 

EB: I will not come out and say that Stanford would have run the table and won the Pac-12 North if Davis Mills had been able to play against Oregon, but I do think that the Cardinal would have had a very good shot at winning that game, if not keeping it close to the end. Although of course who knows if we would have seen a similar performance from kicker Jet Toner in Eugene. I definitely like Stanford’s odds against Colorado if that false positive had not thrown off Mills’s practice time. There is no doubt that Stanford would have a better record if Mills had been able to play from the get-go, but unfortunately that is not the reality we have seen play out before us. Nevertheless, the Cardinal have turned it around of late and have the chance to finish with a very respectable 4-2 record, pending the result of this Saturday’s finale against UCLA. 

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Jibriel Taha is a staff writer for the sports section. He is from Malibu, California and studies economics and political science. He also co-hosts The Stanford Daily's men's basketball podcast series. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.
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Ells Boone is a desk editor for the sports section. He is a sophomore from Virginia Beach, Virginia, studying communication and economics. You can catch him waking up early on weekend mornings to watch his favorite Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspur, play. Contact him at eboone24 'at' stanforddaily.com.
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Sofia Scekic is the deputy managing editor for the sports section. She is a senior from Wisconsin studying Public Policy. An avid Green Bay Packers fan, she has not missed a game in nine years. Contact her at sscekic 'at' stanforddaily.com.