Stanford, Cal at Critical Juncture
The season that started so promisingly for both Stanford and Cal is in danger of falling apart.
Going into week 5, Stanford was riding high with a 4-0 record and a No. 7 national ranking. Cal was 3-0 and ranked No. 24.
Suddenly, two weeks later, Stanford is 4-2 after crushing defeats at the hands of Notre Dame (38-17) and Utah (40-21). Cal is 3-2 after losses to Oregon (42-24) and Arizona (24-17).
Now, both teams head into the meat of the conference schedule. They each have two “should win” games against Pac-12 cellar dwellers UCLA and Oregon State. But all the others fall into the “should lose” or “could easily lose” categories.
So we’ve arrived at a critical juncture for the Bay Area schools. And whether they get back on track or go off the rails will depend on how well they deal with some serious offensive problems.
Turnover Epidemic: Cal, after opening the season with three impressive wins, has lost two in a row and put its hopes of reaching bowl eligibility in jeopardy.
The Bears have turned the ball over nine times in their last two games, a sure prescription for failure.
Arizona was considered a "must-win" in Cal's blueprint for getting to the post-season requirement of six victories. And the Bears dominated the Wildcats—with almost twice as many yards and first downs and a 10-minute advantage in time of possession—but lost because of four turnovers and 115 yards in penalties.
Quarterback Brandon McIlwain epitomized the Cal effort, rushing for over 100 yards and two TDs, but throwing two pick-sixes and losing a fumble in the second half.
To go bowling, the Bears have to beat UCLA and Oregon State in their next two games, then find a way to beat one of five straight tough opponents: Washington, WSU, USC, Stanford and Colorado.
And to do that, they'll have to hold onto the ball.
Running Amok: Going into the season, Stanford was rated one of the top offensive teams in the nation with returning superstar running back Bryce Love, the passing tandem of K.J. Costello to JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a stable of excellent tight ends, and an experienced offensive line.
Most pundits anticipated a 9-3 type season and a top 25 ranking. Now that is very much in doubt.
Shockingly, the Cardinal has been unable to run the ball. Five games into the season, Stanford ranks No. 123 out of 129 FBS schools in rushing with 94.4 yards per game and 3.4 per carry. Last year, by contrast, the Cardinal averaged 202.6 yards per game and 5.9 per carry. Love has struggled, and opponents have been manhandling the Cardinal offensive line.
On the other hand, the passing game has shown some life, with Costello and Arcega-Whiteside complemented by dependable Trent Irvin, stellar tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson, and a couple of big-play youngsters—sophomore Osiris St. Brown and freshman Mike Wilson.
Naturally, a lot of fans, alums and media types would like to see head coach David Shaw open up the offense and air it out. But Shaw says running the ball is “who we are.”
"Some people will write that we should change what we do, that we should just throw the ball all over the yard,” Shaw said after the Utah loss. “Those people don’t know me. Those people don’t understand this program. Those people don’t understand what it’s taken to get where we are and how many games we’ve won in the philosophy that we have. It’s a proven philosophy if we will execute.”
As readers of this blog know, I’m a David Shaw fan. If you’re looking for a coach who can recruit, represent a university well, run a clean program, develop young men, win 75% of his games and go to a bowl every year, David Shaw checks all the boxes.
Having been involved with Stanford football since 1968, I understand what it’s taken for him to get Stanford to this level and to maintain a program that consistently ranks among the nation’s best.
Yet I also believe a coach has to be flexible. All great coaches make adjustments. Sometimes the talent isn’t as good a match for your system as you’d like it to be. Sometimes opponents start to figure you out. Sometimes injuries force your hand. You can’t allow commitment to a philosophy, however successful, to morph into stubbornness that can threaten that success.
For a variety of reasons, it’s clear at this point Stanford isn’t going to be able to run the ball down opponents’ throats this season. And it’s equally apparent that the team has a number of attractive weapons in the passing game.
It’s time to throw the ball.
Remember This Name: With Love hobbled by a sore ankle and an ineffective offensive line, the most exciting football player in the Pac-12 this season has been Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. In Saturday’s 28-21 win over ASU, Shenault caught 13 passes and scored all four of his team’s touchdowns, two of them on runs from the wildcat formation. So far this year, he has 51 grabs and six touchdowns for the undefeated Buffs.
He’s the real deal.