After two straight losses early in the season, I doubted Stanford could win the Pac-12 North, and I’m sure I was not alone; fans questioned Shaw’s conservative play calling and his choice behind center. Even David Shaw himself mentioned in his opening remarks Saturday night that he doubted whether his team would see USC again for a rematch. But here we are on Thanksgiving weekend, thinking about the Pac-12 Championship game next Friday versus the Trojans and thinking about how much better of a team Stanford is now than in September.
Stanford battled on both sides of the ball on Saturday, and it wasn’t until late in the game that they slipped away from the Irish. Without key turnovers, this game would’ve been a nail biter; if not for the Stanford front seven, Notre Dame would’ve ran away with the game early.
Notre Dame’s Josh Adams was once considered a Heisman hopeful, and the Irish faithful applauded their run game throughout the season. Against USC, Notre Dame ran for 377 yards, and Adams finished with 191. Against Stanford, they ran for 154 rushing yards, and Adams was held to only 49.
“We knew that [Notre Dame] was averaging a ton of rushing yards per game,” senior Harrison Phillips mentioned, “but the defensive lineman played very well, making gaps a lot smaller and allowing linebackers to shoot.”
In the last five games, the Cardinal improved their rush defense tremendously and kept opponents to 155 rushing yards or less. Contrast with the beginning of the season when USC exploded against Stanford for 307 rushing yards.
Phillips noticed that the team “got into a lot of nickel personnel early in the season, thinking they could stop the run in those calls and coverages.” Now, though, the defense changed its scheme and utilized a 3-4 defense more frequently.
Fifth year senior Peter Kalambayi pointed out, “We’re playing more base defense against the run now, and that’s been working out very well. It’s always a physical game with [USC]. We’re gonna attack this week as best we can and go down to Levi’s Stadium.”
Along with Phillips and Kalambayi, the entire defense will be ready for USC in the Pac-12 Championship. One player to watch is Bobby Okereke, who finished with nine total tackles against the Irish, and also collected ten tackles and two sacks against the Huskies. Stanford once lacked a dominant inside linebacker, but Okereke is now separating himself from the other inside linebackers.
The biggest change, however, hasn’t been the front seven or the rise of Okereke; it’s been the arrival of K.J. Costello. Since starting against Washington State, he improved every game and threw a career high four touchdowns on Saturday. Still, Costello believes he has plenty of room to grow.
“I still don’t feel like I’ve played an ‘A’ game yet as far as the grade sheet goes,” Costello commented, “and that includes managing the run game, efficiency in the pass game, and making proper reads.”
The Trojans didn’t face Costello earlier in the season, but they will in the Pac-12 Championship. Costello is a major reason for victories against Notre Dame and Washington, and he could very well make the difference against USC.
And let’s not forget about Bryce Love. Even nursing a sore ankle, he tore up the Notre Dame defense for 125 yards. With Love leading the way, the Cardinal offense looks as good as ever, and the team expects a hard fought game this Friday.
Love said, “We started off the season 1-2, backs against the wall. Just a testament to the team that we have. We're resilient. We fought back. We've come a long way. We still have more to prove.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that this team is not the same team that played USC over two months ago. The front seven can now stop the run. Costello brought a marked improvement in the passing game. And don’t forget Stanford still has a Heisman-worthy running back.
Get ready Stanford fans; Friday should be fun.