TCU and Stanford will play for the first time in a long time Thursday, facing off in a matchup of Top 15 teams in the Valero Alamo Bowl. To learn more about the Frogs’ opponent, we got an insider source, Hank Waddles of Go Mighty Card.
Frogs O’ War: Bryce Love is another in a long line of ridiculously talented running backs, but he seems like a different player than those before him - perhaps the best of the bunch. What separates Love from the rest of collegiate running backs?
Hank Waddles: It was amazing to watch Christian McCaffrey for three seasons, and when he left I was convinced that he was the best player in the history of Stanford football, but it only took me about three games into this season to begin wondering if perhaps Bryce Love was the best running back ever to play for the Cardinal. Now that Love’s junior season is almost complete, I stand by that assessment. As a pure runner, no one has been better than Love. The main thing is that he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Defenses have had no choice but to load the box as they attempt to stop him, but he’s quick enough and strong enough that he often breaks through the first and second tackle attempts. If the safeties are drawn up close, they have no hope of getting an angle on him, and even less hope of running him down from behind. But even aside from those big plays, Love has the vision to see holes that other backs don’t. The offensive line has been a huge part of his success, so when Love missed the Oregon State game, it was tempting to think that the backups would just run through the same holes Love was exploiting, but that didn’t happen. Love has a unique blend of patience, strength, and speed that other backs don’t have. When you combine that with the seemingly unnatural toughness and tolerance for pain that he’s displayed over the past two months while dealing with a high ankle sprain, you get the best running back in the country.
FOW: KJ Costello took over the starting QB job late in the year and was very good for the most part. How would you rate his performance this year, what does he do well, and where is he most vulnerable?
HW: It’s been clear for a while now that K.J. Costello has been the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, but he wasn’t ready to step into the starting role until later in the season. Much is demanded of the Stanford quarterback, and in selecting his starter, Coach David Shaw has always placed a premium on knowledge of the offense. Costello’s early success when appearing for a series or two early in the season, or even when he came in for an injured Keller Chryst against UCLA, was mainly due to his physical skills, but it wasn’t until the final two or three games that he finally began to look like a Stanford quarterback in the mold of Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan. Now that he’s up to speed, he can call three plays in the huddle, then choose the correct one after surveying the defense at the line of scrimmage. This allows the offense to function as designed, and late in the season the passing game became enough of a threat that defenses were paying the price for loading the box against Love. His strength is his ability to take advantage of Stanford’s fleet of oversized receivers and tight ends by throwing pinpoint jump balls, either on end zone fades or even standard routes. He’s accurate enough to put the ball in places where only his receivers can get to it, and he trusts that those players will be able to outmuscle smaller defenders to make the play. I think his weakness is his inexperience. He’s only played a handful of games at this point, and there are times when he holds the ball too long in the pocket or tries to force a pass that he shouldn’t, but he seems to be getting better each time out. Considering all this, there’s lots of optimism with respect to the future of the Stanford offense.
FOW: Stanford's defensive backfield seems pretty opportunistic, wracking up INTs and making big plays. What makes them so good, and can their aggressiveness work against them?
HW: I don’t think there’s any disputing that this is the best and deepest group of defensive backs in Stanford history. Texas Christian fans may remember defensive backs coach Duane Akina from his days at Texas, and he’s been a huge part of the improvement in the secondary. Justin Reid is at his best when playing his natural safety position, but he’s also versatile enough that he’ll often jump up to the line as a nickel. (Considering TCU’s offense, I’m sure we’ll see a lot of that.) Cornerback Quenton Meeks is another player to watch, and I expect him to have a strong game. Meeks has spoken a lot about the heavy emphasis he places on film study as he prepares for an opponent (Akina has also praised him in this regard), so I’d think the extra time to prepare for the Frogs will help him. (Two years ago, as a true freshman, he credited film study for the game-sealing pick six he had in the Rose Bowl against Iowa.)
If there’s a concern with this group, however, it’s not their aggressiveness but their health. Starting cornerback Alijah Holder is out for the season, and some of the depth has been taken away with injuries to other rotation players. Against a high-octane offense like TCU, this could be a problem.
FOW: How do you expect the Stanford D to attack TCU's air raid offense?
HW: One of the more interesting things about watching the Stanford defense has been the ability of coordinator Lance Anderson to make adjustments. Over the past few years, it hasn’t been unusual to see an opponent slice through the Stanford defense on its first series or two only to struggle the rest of the way. Anderson has been a master of responding to what’s happening in real time, a critical skill in this age of varied offenses. I’m sure Stanford will benefit from their experience with Rick Leach’s air raid offense at Washington State and the various looks they’ve seen from Oregon over the past several years, but this will obviously be a new challenge. In general, the Stanford defensive philosophy has been to contain all threats and keep the play in front of the defenders, with the idea being that few teams can sustain a ten-play drive by passing the ball without making a mistake. Most of the time, this works.
FOW: Which player on offense not named Love or Costello can be a difference maker Thursday?
HW: I’m going to go with two — wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and tight end Kaden Smith. Arcega-Whiteside’s speed won’t scare anyone off the line of scrimmage, but his size probably will. At 6’4”, he’s bigger than any cornerback he sees, and he’s technically skilled enough to press this advantage. He will always be Costello’s primary target deep in the red zone, and Shaw isn’t shy about calling the end zone fade, sometimes two or three times in a row. Arcega-Whiteside is the team’s leading receiver, but Kaden Smith has come on strong recently. He and Costello are roommates, so perhaps this explains their synergy, but Smith seems to have become Costello’s favorite target, accounting for four touchdowns over the past three games. Watch for him ranging over the middle where he’s a threat on medium to deep post routes. If these two players get going early, things begin to open up for Bryce Love, and then the play calling gets easier and easier.
FOW: Which defensive player has to have a big game for the Cardinal to win?
HW: Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is not just the heart and soul of the defense, he’s the player who should’ve won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He led the team with 100 tackles, a ridiculous number for an interior lineman, including 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He has to play well, but the good news for Stanford is that he always has. If his name isn’t being called early and often, it will be a long day for the Stanford defense.
FOW: How do you expect the Stanford fans to travel for this game?
HW: Stanford’s poor traveling reputation is undeserved, but it’s true that they won’t bring as many fans as schools like Michigan or Texas or Alabama. As a smaller school, there simply aren’t as many of us. Even so, they’ve never had trouble selling their bowl game allotments in the past. The Alamo Bowl, however, isn’t quite as exciting as the Rose Bowl, so I’m sure the Frogs will feel as if this is a home game for them.
FOW: What is your prediction for the game and how do you see it playing out?
HW: I didn’t mention this when discussing Bryce Love earlier, but the biggest variable will probably be the health of his ankle. Based on all that we’ve seen and the little we’ve heard, I don’t think there’s a chance his injury will fully heal until deep into the off season, but I have to believe the four-week layoff will translate into some improvement at least. I also expect that Costello will continue his growth and play well. This offense has the potential to be nightmarish for coordinators in 2018, and we could see some signs of this on Thursday night. I think the Cardinal will have to find the end zone at least four times, and one of those scores could come from the defense, so I’m going with Stanford 34, Texas Christian 27.
Thanks to Hank and watch for our response on www.gomightycard.com this week!