Generally, when the idea of the Stanford Cardinal offense comes to mind the first thought is their rushing attack. Senior running back Bryce Love finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting last season. However, Love has only played four games this season and averaged just over 80 yards per game in those appearances.
This season the Cardinal have asked junior quarterback K.J. Costello to take on more of the offensive duties instead of Love. Costello played in 11 games last year, but has already surpassed his season total of 1573 yards of 2017. Through six games he has 1611 yards this year, as the offense as a whole is averaging 268.5 yards through the air this year compared to 186.3 last season.
While Costello’s play has improved, the passing game upgrade also has much to do with the play of the Cardinal’s wide receivers. While Love is expected to play on Thursday, it’s the pass catchers that worry Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards.
“We’ve spent a lot of time this week against the run but with that being said, these 6-foot-5, 6-foot-7 receivers bother me, because they throw it up. They’re covered,” Edwards said. “Utah did a nice job of turning to the receiver and playing the ball, but they’re going to throw it. You’re covering the guy, they don’t care. They’re going to throw the ball and say our guy can out-jump your guy.”
The two senior wide receivers for Stanford, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin are both over six foot. Arcega-Whiteside comes in at 6-foot-3, Trenton at 6-foot-2. The other pass catcher not mentioned is junior tight end Kaden Smith, who is 6-foot-5. All three are the Cardinal’s top pass catchers for a reason.
With the big bodied receivers, all Stanford does sometimes is ask Costello to throw the ball up and give them a chance. In the team’s comeback win against Oregon, one of the touchdowns caught by Arcega-Whiteside is him boxing out the Oregon defensive back in the end zone to go up for the ball.
This isn’t even a route, it’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside legitimately just posting up in the end zone.— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) September 23, 2018
Has a couple TDs like this already his season pic.twitter.com/fphLawWiME
“Those 50/50 balls, we want to make them 60/40, 70/30,” said Arcega-Whiteside after the team’s win over Oregon on September 22nd. “The jump balls, even though I did catch a lot, I left some on the field. I wanted to catch all of them.”
This is going to be a big task for cornerbacks Chase Lucas and Kobe Williams, especially after the performance Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault had a against the Sun Devils. Shenault, who is 6-foot-2, had 13 catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in ASU’s 28-21 loss to CU in their last game.
Lucas was upset about his outing and knows he needs to get back to work against Stanford.
“I feel like I lost us that game,” he said. “For where I want to go, for where I want to be, that [expletive] can’t happen.”
Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales put out his opinion of the defense during the bye week, and he’s still looking for more.
“You’re playing with guys in the front -- (senior defensive tackle) Renell (Wren) and (junior defensive tackle) George (Lea), between the two of them they have a little experience. Then Kobe and Chase have quite a bit of experience,” he said. “Everywhere else, you’re playing with guys who are learning how the speed of the game works. For the younger guys playing with experience, they’ve probably played a little bit above themselves.
“For the number of snaps we’ve played on defense, I think we’ve played the 16th most snaps in the country -- for four true freshmen to do that and play at a pretty good level, they’re probably playing a little above themselves. In my opinion, we’re still not very good on defense. We’re good enough to be in games. That’s not good enough.”
For Gonzales, Lucas and the whole Arizona State defense, Thursday will be a gut-check. Handling the big pass catchers for Stanford will play a big part of the result.