Can we talk about how great BYE week is? It was so nice to have a stress-free weekend, watching USC go down and smugly smirking as BYU struggled against resident “little brother” Utah State. Good times.
But alas, it’s time to get back to business. This week is Homecoming (are we going to get the interlocking U helmets this week? My money is on yes), and the Utes face Heisman-hopeful Bryce Love and a physical Stanford team at Rice-Eccles Stadium. This is one of my favorite games of the season, every season. As a Utah alum living in the Bay Area, watching the Stanf-nerds get riled up really makes my Saturday. Anyway, today we’ll preview the Stanford offense, and how Utah’s defense will match up.
If you’ve been paying even the slightest attention to Stanford this season, you’ve read a cheesy Bryce Love headline by now (a few examples – “Love Him or Hate Him” and “Bryce Love and Power Football Have a Wonderful Marriage.” We get it, his last name is Love). Despite Stanford’s two losses, ESPN is gushing and their Football Power Index gives the Cardinal a 76.2% chance of beating the Utes at home. Las Vegas has Stanford favored by 6 points. Let’s see if the offensive numbers justify such praise.
First, the running game. We’ve seen this before- from Toby Gerhart to Christian McCaffrey, Stanford always brings it on the ground. This year it’s Bryce Love, who in five games has rushed for 1088 yards and eight touchdowns on 98 carries. To put this in perspective, that’s nearly double the ground yardage than what Penn State’s Saquon Barkley has produced to date and over 250 yards more than the next leading rusher, Rashaad Penny from San Diego State. What’s more impressive (can it get more impressive?) is that Love has averaged nearly 50 – yes, 50 – yards per carry on his touchdown runs. Here’s his stat lines from the last two games: 30 carries, 263 yards, 1 TD vs. UCLA; 25 carries, 301 yards, 3 TDs vs. Arizona State. The numbers speak truth, and the truth is that Love is a dangerous threat (really wanted to make a Love pun here, but having some writer’s block. Any ideas welcome in the comments section).
While Stanford’s ground attack is highly potent, its passing game is less so. In five games, the Cardinal has amassed 942 yards and eight touchdowns in the air. Further, this passing offense doesn’t present much of a deep threat, averaging only 7.03 yards per attempt. At quarterback, Keller Chryst started the first four games of the season, but went down with injury against UCLA. Sophomore K.J. Costello has since taken over, throwing for 376 yards and three touchdowns in two games. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is Stanford’s leading receiver, hauling in only 13 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns (contrast this with Utah’s leading receiver, Carrington II, who has caught 30 balls for nearly 500 yards and four scores).
A few more tidbits: Stanford doesn’t turn the ball over much- giving up only five turnovers in as many games. It’s the 32nd ranked FBS team on third down, converting 44.4% of the time (well ahead of Utah, at 32.7%. More on that next time). Finally, Stanford is tied for first place in red zone offense, scoring 22 times in – wait for it – 22 attempts. Of those 22 scores, 15 are touchdowns and seven are field goals.
So how does Utah matchup with a run-heavy, pass-second offense? Based on the statistics, pretty well. Utah is giving up 2.66 yards per carry, and allowing only 87 yards of rushing per game. While Arizona did break off 200 yards against Utah, their offense was predicated on a dual-threat quarterback running a read option. K.J. Costello is not that, and has only rushed 3 times all season.
Despite Stanford’s gaudy rushing and red zone numbers, I’m feeling uncharacteristically optimistic about this matchup for the Utes. This is the type of game Kyle Whittingham has always thrived in- rough and tumble, grimy, and won in the trenches. The Utes would be well-served watching tape of the Stanford/USC game, where the Trojans “bottled up” Love for only 160 yards and a single touchdown. Utah’s goal should be to keep Stanford’s total yardage below 350. Up next, we’ll take a look at Stanford’s creaky defense and how the Utes can exploit it to pile on some points.