Cardinal offense built on versatility
Joe Everett | Friday, September 28, 2018
No. 7 Stanford travels to Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday to provide the first top-10 home matchup of the Brian Kelly era in a prominent Week 5 contest that will go a long way in clarifying the College Football Playoff race.
The Cardinal (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) are coming off a dramatic, come-from-behind 38-31 win over No. 19 Oregon (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) on the road at Autzen Stadium, and Irish head coach Brain Kelly sees a complete team on each side of the ball with elite physical and mental traits.
“[They’re] very versatile on the offensive side of the football,” Kelly said. “We know about Bryce Love — the best back in the country, once you think he’s down he’s gone — [but] I think K.J. Costello has come into his own this year distributing the football. He’s got a number of weapons … Arcega-Whiteside has been a go-to guy, but now a number of their tight ends are outstanding, big-body types that he can get the ball to. … Looks like he’s really in control of that offense. They’ve got speed and size which gives them great versatility, and you know Stanford’s always going to have a big, physical offensive line.”
“ … On the defensive side of the ball they continue to employ a very aggressive, muti-dimensional defensive unit. A very physical and tough group. Tough-minded. Swann, from right here in the state of Indiana, plays with a great motor. Linebackers are veteran players, really been impressed with the depth and versatility at the linebacker position. At the back end, again [you see] veteran players back there, so a very talented group across the board at all three levels on the defensive side of the ball.”
One of the biggest explanations for Stanford’s ability to continue its recent level of success has been quarterback K.J. Costello. The junior, who threw for 176 yards and four touchdowns against the Irish last November in Palo Alto, has tossed for 1,076 yards and 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions through four games this season, and his ability to make big throws from the pocket is what has impressed Stanford head coach David Shaw most this season.
“The great quarterbacks can operate at a high level in very little space,” Shaw said. “Young quarterbacks tend to move too much in the pocket. K.J. has gotten a lot better at subtly moving in the pocket and staying clear of the big guys trying to protect him. At the same time, still being able to make those throws with guys in your face [is what he’s been able to do]. I think he’s going to continue to grow and continue to improve — I think the ceiling’s very, very high.”
At the same time, Shaw realizes Stanford has a lot of room for improvement, and specifically pointed to the Cardinal offensive line, which has struggled to provide room for Love to operate so far this season.
“We still have some inconsistency up front, and [Monday] we talked about individual accountability,” Shaw said. “It ain’t just the new o-line coach, it ain’t just the defenses we play, it’s about taking the proper footwork, taking the proper targets and then once you’re blocking a guy, he’s got to stay blocked. … We still have one of the most explosive backs in America, and he’s only gotten a couple of legitimate shots to make plays.”
Stanford will need its offense to be firing on all cylinders to keep up with the Irish, Shaw noted, as Notre Dame showed its potential to be an offensive juggernaut after putting up 56 points last week with junior quarterback Ian Book at the helm.
“[Book’s] got an accurate arm, he’s got a quick release — he’s a good athlete,” Shaw said. “He can get out and escape and get first downs, so that’s another thing you have to deal with when a guy can beat you in the pocket and outside the pocket.”
“ … We gotta be prepared for [Notre Dame’s offense] to come after us, because they can move the ball, they can throw it and run it. I still anticipate seeing both quarterbacks, but they have an explosive offense that we have to try to contain.”
Thanks to several close games in recent history and the fact that both schools boast elite academics, Shaw said Notre Dame and Stanford have developed quite a rivalry over the years.
“Notre Dame is right up there with our other rivals,” Shaw said. “We recruit nationally — we don’t just have guys from the West Coast, we have guys from the Midwest and from the East Coast that either grew up watching Notre Dame and liking Notre Dame, so that rivalry has been really good and the games have been outstanding over the years — lots of late-game victories on both sides, lots of great players on both sides.”
While the Cardinal just won in a hostile environment in Eugune, Oregon, last week and defeated the Irish in South Bend in 2016, Shaw said he expects the atmosphere of Notre Dame Stadium to be tough Saturday night, especially with playoff hopes on the line.
“It’s a difficult place to win,” Shaw said. “Over the years it’s gotten louder. With all the renovations to the Stadium, they’ve done a very good job of creating a big home-field advantage.”