Changing Personalities: Oregon the patient, methodical outfit in 21-6 win over Stanford

By Morris Phillips

STANFORD — In a down year for Stanford, Colby Parkinson is probably as close as the Cardinal have to an offensive leader. The 6’7″ tight end is fast and a natural, downfield target for quarterback K.J. Costello, who at least early in this season, could use all the help he can get.

Parkinson was asked earlier this week about his matchup with the Oregon secondary, and he gave an honest assessment, and hardly scathing as billboard material goes:

“Their DB’s are not nearly as sizeable as UCF’s, but they are very athletic and we played against them before and they’re a bunch of good guys.  But there’s a bunch of opportunities to make plays and like I said, we just need to go out there and do what we have done 1,000 times before,” Parkinson said.

Well, it turns out that the Ducks’ secondary got wind of Parkinson’s comments, and Saturday night at Stanford Stadium wasn’t anything like what’s transpired 1,000 times before. This time, Oregon was the patient, methodical squad in the matchup of Pac-12 opposites, and they ground up Stanford, winning 21-6.

For Stanford, turning 234 yards of total offense and 13 first downs into a possibility of an upset was a near impossible task. The Ducks seized control by building a comfortable 14-3 halftime lead, and protecting it, not by building an avalanche of points their program has come to be known for. Consequently, Stanford Stadium remained quiet throughout, as Stanford failed to make any headway offensively.

Stanford punter Ryan Sanborn, with six, effective punts, did as much as anyone to keep Stanford close. So did Cameron Scarlett, an efficient runner with 97 yards rushing on 16 carries. But Stanford failed on 11 of 16 third down conversions, and did little when big moments arose.

“The game boils down to five or six plays, and the score will look like we’re not evenly matched, but when we watch the film, we’re going to see that we are,” coach David Shaw said afterwards.

Defensively, Oregon gave Costello fits with its heralded pass rush, then backed it up in the secondary. Last season, Costello may have played his best game, engineering a 38-31 upset of the Ducks in Eugene with Parkinson making the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime. This time, Oregon afforded Costello little time to throw, and without an elite receiver outside of Parkinson, the Ducks clamped down on all of Stanford’s short to immediate routes. Michael Wilson and Conor Weddington were limited to one catch of 15 yards or more each, just as telling as Parkinson being shut out.

“I don’t know how many pressures we had or how many sacks we had. Five sacks?” asked Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. “Thank you. To stop that, not only our straight rush but twists and our stunts, our disguised coverages, just switching the leverages of some of our back end guys really affected the quarterback, and something that, again, great job by our defense.”

Stanford’s opening gauntlet of a schedule ends with the Cardinal 1-3, 0-2 including the surprisingly lopsided losses to Central Florida and USC. The Cardinal were far more competitive this week against Oregon, but they’ll welcome an ease in their schedule regardless. The Cardinal travel to Corvallis next weekend to face Oregon State. The Beavers are 1-2 after losses to Oklahoma State and Hawaii, followed by a feel good win over Cal Poly.

The Cardinal figure to get better, fast, but Shaw was regretful that the improvement couldn’t have come this week.

“Trust the character of this football team, trust our work ethic, trust our resilience. We’ve been down before,” Shaw said.

Stanford and Northwestern fail to meet expectations in the Cardinal’s 17-7 season-opening win

By Morris Phillips

STANFORD — Stanford wanted to regain their run-first identity, Northwestern wanted to maintain their momentum from 2018, and gain a foothold in the nation’s Top 25.

Those were the plans. But neither came to fruition, and both teams need not only to forge an identity in the coming weeks, they need to overcome some key injuries as well.

Stanford got the win, 17-7, the product of a stingy, first half defensively, but not much else. Quarterback K.J. Costello departed early after taking a forearm to the head near midfield, but could only muster one, credible drive in a half of football before that unfortunate occurrence.

“We’ve got so many veterans on the defensive side,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “So many fourth- and fifth-year seniors, so much leadership that we knew it was going to take those guys keeping us in the game, and they did.”

Northwestern trumpeted the debut of quarterback Hunter Johnson, the transfer from Clemson, but he was ineffective, getting picked off twice, and briefly replaced when the Wildcats couldn’t get anything going offensively in the first half. The Cats managed just 74 yards in four, first half drives, and Johnson finished 6 of 17 passing. Consequently, the questions after the game regarding Johnson’s performance came across harsh.

“This is not an excuse-making business,” Coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Johnson when questioned on the transfer’s preparedness. “He’s got to be a lot better. We’ve got to continue to help him do the things. But I though he responded really well in the second half. That’s why I completely disagree with what you said.”

TJ Green replaced Johnson to start the second half, and helmed Northwestern’s most promising drive of 10 plays that reached Stanford’s five-yard line. But on second-and-goal, Green inexplicably held the ball too long, and was stripped. Not only did Northwestern lose the football, Green suffered a leg injury that will keep him out indefinitely.

With Northwestern struggling to move the football, the Stanford offense was afforded time to find its footing. With NU’s defense effective and physical, that process wasn’t immediate. Eventually Stanford found room outside the harsh marks where they won some key one-on-one scenarios. That process led to Michael Wilson’s two-yard touchdown catch that gave Stanford a 7-0 lead before halftime.

Throughout, the Wildcats were nasty inside, consistently getting a second defender in to finish tackles. With the time of possession nearly two-to-one in Stanford’s favor, Northwestern eventually showed cracks. But they kept their team in the game on the scoreboard, limiting the final, seven Stanford drives to seven plays or less. That kept the score at 10-7, the outcome in doubt, until Johnson was stripped with 20 seconds remaining, a play that resulted in Jordan Fox’s fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.

Cameron Scarlett led Stanford with 22 carries for 97 yards, and Connor Wedington came up with seven catches for 69 yards, but Shaw was bothered that the production didn’t translate on the scoreboard in a game that didn’t feel as if it should be so tight. Afterwards, Shaw complained his team didn’t take advantage of big play scenarios that arose when Northwestern’s defense gambled.

“When someone drops safeties down or blitzes, like Northwestern did today, that we pick it up. We have an opportunity down the field one-on-one. Mike Wilson was open down the field. Colby Parkinson was open twice down the field. Cyrus. We took one shot. It was kind of a 50/50 ball.”

The Cardinal travel to Los Angeles this week to face USC in a meeting of teams trying to recapture the magic. At press time, the Trojans were in a tight battle with Fresno State in USC’s home opener Saturday night.

USC outlasts Stanford 31-28 to become Pac-12 champs for the first time since 2008

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Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) and teammates celebrate after defeating Stanford 31-28 in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

By Morris Phillips

SANTA CLARA, CA–Tense, close and littered with pivotal plays, the Pac-12 Championship Game was, for once, a whale of a ballgame.

USC kept Stanford from gaining its first lead with a fourth quarter, goal line stand and went on to capture the conference title, winning 31-28. The Trojans became Pac-12 Champs for the first time since 2008, ending a period lowlighted by NCAA sanctions, coaching changes and for their tastes, too many losses to Stanford.

“We knew it would be a fourth quarter game,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “It would be four quarters. Credit to these guys, you go all the way through the season, how they finish games is amazing to me. They’re the best finishing bunch I’ve been associated with in my 23 years of college coaching.”

The Trojans preserved their 24-21 lead with eight minutes remaining by stuffing Cameron Scarlett on consecutive plays at the goal line. But peril wasn’t far removed until quarterback Sam Darnold got USC moving with a 54-yard pass and run to Michael Pittman that got the Trojans off the goal line and into what would be their game-winning drive. Five times on the eight-play drive, back Ronald Jones II would handle the ball culminating with his eight-yard touchdown run with 4:22 remaining.

While Jones finished with 140 yards rushing on 30 carries, Stanford standout Bryce Love settled for 125 yards on 22 carries. The difference? Jones had something left in his tank off two weeks rest, and was around for the Trojans’ final scoring drive. Love, the Heisman candidate, was still hampered by his nagging, ankle injury only six days after a bruising game against Notre Dame. Consequently, when Stanford threatened to take the lead, Scarlett spelled Love and was stuffed twice at the goal line.

“We made enough plays to keep it close but not enough plays to win,” coach David Shaw explained. “The sequence of fourth-and-1 to take the lead in the Pac-12 championship game, there’s no hesitation at all. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Love was questioned later about the condition of his ankle, but said very little other than that it felt fine at the game’s beginning. Other areas of concern given injuries and players’ availability–along both Stanford’s offensive and defensive lines–were met with disdain by Coach Shaw. The Cardinal made no excuses regarding injuries–or their short week of preparation–given that some many reserves stepped up and played well.

“The word you’ll keep hearing me say which I said in our locker room is character,” Shaw said. “And Devery (Hamilton, Stanford’s starting offensive tackle) like a lot of guys late in the year, guys are banged up. He went out there, battled, got hurt. We take him back to re-evaluate him. We throw guys in there. And Brandon Fanaika plays well.”

If Stanford could have done anything differently, it may have been to turn quarterback K.J. Costello loose earlier. Heading into the final drive of the game, Costello had attempted just 15 passes, completing seven. But with Stanford trailing by 10 late, Costello completed three big passes, the last to Kaden Smith for a 28-yard touchdown with two mintes left.

Costello finished 10 of 22 for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Darnold was 17 of 24 for 325 yards and two scores. The Trojans racked up 501 yards in total offense and held a pair of 10-point leads. The game’s only turnover–a Stephen Carr fumble–was minimized when USC responded with their goal line stand.

USC became the first team from the Pac-12 South to win the championship game and will play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s.