The Stanford Cardinal head into Rice-Eccles Stadium tonight, for the University of Utah's first true test of the Pac-12 season. Bryce Love might currently be a Heisman frontrunner, but can he succeed against Utah's stout front seven? Jacob Rayburn, Publisher of the Cardinal Sports Report, was kind enough to give Ute Nation a little insight:
Coming in at 3-2, how you evaluate the the performance of the Cardinal, so far in 2017?
Inconsistent is a good word for the first five games of Stanford's season. The Cardinal have the athletes to better, especially on offense, than they have been at times this season, but it has been slow to come together. The announcement Friday afternoon that Keller Chryst will start but KJ Costello will also play muddies the water a bit more. Chryst is a team captain and preseason starter, but in the past seven quarters Costello has played while Chryst recovered from a concussion.
During Costello's relatively brief time as starter the offense looked better -- much better in certain aspects -- than in the previous two games against USC and San Diego State. If Stanford can find a rhythm, and pick a quarterback, then there is an intriguing amount of untapped potential on that side of the ball.
The defense is not one of the stronger units the Cardinal have fielded in recent years, but there have been some signs of improvement the past couple weeks. One of the most important developments is how well Stanford defends the run with five defensive backs on the field compared to when they're in their base 3-4. The nickel defense hasn't stood up well to most rushing attacks this season, but there is enough talent among the defensive backs -- especially cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid -- that defensive coordinator Lance Anderson may put them on an island so the front seven can focus on the run.
Bryce Love is reminding Ute Nation of a guy they're very familiar with, in Joe Williams. What has allowed him to have that success? Do you expect it to continue against Utah?
Bryce Love has the type of elite speed that if he had dedicated himself to the track he would be an Olympian. That's the road he was on as a young teenager but he's always been a football player at heart. It is very difficult to cut off Love once he gets into the open and he's a more powerful runner than his measurables may suggest. He broke 25 tackles against Arizona State, and while the Sun Devils aren't an elite defense they have big guys on scholarship to play D-I football, so that number is mind boggling regardless of the opponent.
And the offensive line has gotten better with each week. Utah native Brandon Fanaika started at right guard in place of Nate "Big Island" Herbig last week, but expect Herbig to be back in the lineup. Even with a backup in the starting five and a true freshman at left tackle -- granted that is a former five star named Walker Little -- the line opened huge lanes for Love against ASU.
That will be a much tougher task against the stout Utes. It will be a major test for the offensive line to be successful in a loud stadium, at that elevation and trying to move big athletes in the Utah front seven.
If you were drawing up a game plan to effective attack Stanford's defense, what would that be?
If you can run on Anderson's crew then you've got them in deep trouble. This unit doesn't have the same level of dynamic pass rushers as in past years, but they have trust in the cornerbacks to give the front seven more time to get home. If Utah can ground out yards then that is something Stanford has struggled with so far this season.
How would you stop the Cardinal offense?
It's always about stopping the run against Stanford. There is very little mystery about what is necessary to stop Stanford's offense, it's just a matter of whether a defense can stop the run. During head coach David Shaw's time on The Farm it has been tough to stop the Cardinal from doing what they want more often than not. But Shaw is 0-2 against Utah for a reason and that's because it's a program with a very similar mindset and high level of execution.
Outside of Love, who are the other Cardinal players that you suggest Ute fans pay close attention to?
If you like offensive line play it might be fun to watch a true freshman at left tackle, Little. He has amazing technique. Several other players of interest might be freshman Donald Stewart, a big wide receiver who may be called upon more because starter J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is out due to injury.
On defense, defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and safety Justin Reid can be fun to watch.
Utah takes advantage of a slow first quarter by Stanford's offense and wins 34-24.