As Bryce Love ran into the line over and over again, taking 18 carries for 29 yards, the tune seemed to be set for the Stanford Cardinal.
Last season, Stanford lost to USC and San Diego State when their quarterbacks combined for 252 passing yards in the two games. They lost again to Washington State when Love went for 69 yards, the quarterback position unable to compensate for Loves only poor outing of the season. In 2016, Washington and Washington State demolished Stanford; one Christian McCaffrey ground out 49 and 35 yards respectively.
Two years of data say this team cannot perform when the running back is anything less than miraculous, and even then, quarterback inefficiencies have still hampered the Cardinal. Going into 2018, the lack of defensive star power on the line put more emphasis on running the ball well and dominating time of possession.
But as San Diego State consistently bottled up the Stanford ground and pound, K.J. Costello opened up through the air, tearing into the Aztecs for 332 yards and four scores. Finally, the Cardinal had a contingency plan for when their running game fails, spearheaded by K.J. Costello.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside made the Aztecs’ corners look silly going for a hat-trick, Trenton Irwin saved a scoring drive and a three-touchdown blowout did not even need the new speedster, Osiris St. Brown, to break out. Of all the surprises on offense, incredibly, impossibly, the Costello coming-of-age performance goes to the third or fourth seat.
Costello is everything that the Cardinal desperately needed from Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst over the past two seasons. Seeing it all come to fruition at long last, in a game Love only finds 29 yards, is poetic for the Cardinal nation. Yes, this was a team they were supposed to beat handily (going in favored by 14). Yes, part of the credit has to go to the clinic put on by Arcega-Whiteside and his 229 yards.
But it was so much what they needed at the exact time they needed it for a victory, that became a big deal, despite the competition or that it was the first game or that it was mainly to players dicing up the Aztecs.
Costello and company will meet with another surprise: the calm and collected J.T. Daniels.
For just the second time in school history, a true freshman took the field as the USC starting quarterback. Devoid of his performance were any moments of the youngster making the classic, first-time-here mistakes. He tossed for 282 yards and completed 62 percent of his passes. He was not responsible for any back-breaking turnovers, nor was he ever desperate or shaken. Daniels was surgical, leading the USC Trojans on nine scoring drives as Southern California cruised to a 22-point victory.
Stanford is not supposed to shake terrible running back performances. True freshmen quarterbacks are supposed to look shaky. Both meet Saturday in the one game of the weekend featuring a top 25 matchup.
Buckle up for a shootout
There is no reason to think that goal number one for USC is containing Love, especially considering the 275 yards and two touchdowns he posted against them in the pair of outings last season.
The distraction gives Stanford a fantastic matchup advantage, with tall receivers set to get plenty of one-on-one matchups with corners like Iman Marshall (6-foot-1) and Greg Johnson (5-foot-11). Both Irwin and Arcega-Whiteside are taller and have proven the ability to climb the ladder.
On the flipside, Alijah Holder, Stanford’s starting corner, will make his season start against USC, facing down the Trojans lineup packed with speed. Both Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman averaged 14 yards per catch last season and Amon-Ra St. Brown proved in his collegiate debut that he takes the top off a secondary (he also averaged 14 yards per catch in game one).
Linebacker Bobby Okereke impressed against SDSU, but the defensive line still lacks real teeth that can put continuous pressure on Daniels. Lack of an elite pass rush will give him opportunites to hit big throws downfield.
In the leadup, the game has the makings of a 38-31 or 44-37 game, the winner being the quarterback who has the ball last. Both signal-callers have the opportunity for 300-yard nights, which means that every drive will hold added importance.
The x-factor in Stanford’s favor is both the overall size of the Cardinal receivers and the safety blanket of tight end Kaden Smith.
All of the receivers who will get playing time Saturday are 6-foot-2 or taller, meaning they have the height advantage over the starting corners of USC. Stanford moving their bully-ball football from the trenches to the air is the best case scenario for the Cardinal. Costello also has the benefit of a tight end who can kill USC in the red zone, catching five scores last season and set for a big year in 2018. Tyler Petite, is far more of a blocking tight end, only catching 23 balls in 2017 and not a viable lifeline for the young Daniels.
Stanford has the height, the weapons and the quarterback for victory.