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Leland Stanford Junior University Offensive Preview

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Part one of a two-part Big Game extravaganza.

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 22 Stanford at Cal
Stanford player graciously allows his body to be used as a door mat.
Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s late in the 4th quarter, and K.J. Costello can feel the pressure mounting. He could feel the sweat beading upon his brow, as a drop slowly dripped down onto his face. Costello surveys the field: he has tight end Colby Parkinson in the slot to his left, wide receiver Simi Fehoko lined up to the outside on his right, and running back Cameron Scarlett in the tailback position. Costello looks up and watches as the game clock ticks down. Nine, eight, seven seconds left in the game. With no timeouts left, this would be the final play. He feels the enormity of the weight of expectations upon him: pulling off a victory in the Big Game would be enough to salvage this season. How did we even get here, needing a win to keep our bowl hopes alive? Suddenly, he sees it: a late shift in the defensive alignment. They had spent all week watching tape, and it was about to finally pay off. Costello takes the snap. He’s reading linebacker Evan Weaver on the play, because he knows he only has a second to get rid of the ball before the wind is to be forcibly excavated from his chest. He rolls out to his left, quickly stops, and flips the ball just over the outstretched hands of Cameron Goode. Parkinson, with his gangly 6’7” frame, dives for the football, and... he’s got it! He made the catch! Raucous cheers erupt from all around the stadium. They’ve done it! Costello couldn’t believe it. He rushes to embrace Parkinson, still lying prone on the ground. Soon, more Stanford players begin piling on top of them in joyous celebration. Tears begin to well in Costello’s— nay, everyone’s eyes. They’ve done it, they’ve finally done it! They scored a touchdown in the waning moments of the game!

Cal wins, 42-7.


Introduction

A wise Stanford football analyst once told me, “This game could come down to whoever has the ball last. Also, I think the OL/DL lines could determine the outcome. The play down in the trenches will be brutal (W.W.3). [...] playing in a hostile, loud (understatement) environment. [Stanford’s] linemen on both sides of the ball came together that night. It was a dogfight. That is what it will take Saturday against Cal.” This basically tells you everything you need to know, so you can probably skip the rest of the article.

Oh, you’re still here? Alright then. I guess you’re looking for actual insight, which is why you’re reading this on a Cal website instead of “Fear the Tree” or whatever the Stanford site is called.

Speaking of the Tree, let’s take a look at their mascot.

Washington v Stanford
The 2019 Stanford Tree.
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Every year Stanford endeavors to make their mascot worse, and every year Stanford succeeds. There’s not a lot of ways you can correctly use the phrase, “Every year Stanford succeeds,” but that’s one of them, so you’re welcome. I mean, is this mascot supposed to be edgy or something? This mascot looks like one of those things where you completely fail at something, but then try to play it off by smugly pretending you failed on purpose. I’d give this mascot a solid F. Due to grade inflation at Stanford, that F at Cal translates into A- at Stanford, and this tree is now working a prestigious job at its father’s company.

If you’re going to the game at Stanford, you might see signs with “Cal” spelled with a “K,” denigrating us for being dirty liberal hippies or communists or something (“Kal” for the “Republik” of Berkeley? I’m not even sure). While we might be a bunch of dirty hippies, it’s Stanford that has— and this is not a joke— players with names like “Scooter” or “Kale.” In fact, Kale Lucas is from a town called “Farmington,” which leads to a joke so lazy that I’m not even going to bother to make it.

You also might not see anything, because Stanford likes to pretend that they are largely apathetic about their football team, as this makes the pain of losing sting less. Make no mistake though, nearly every Stanford fan will be at their football games. Check out their Pac-12 home opener against a highly-ranked Oregon squad, a matchup that is guaranteed to make the fans show up in droves. Stanford fans packed the stadium for the Oregon game (the large masses of people wearing green are actually Stanford fans in disguise):

Stanford stands against Oregon. Camera operators typically try to disguise just how packed the stands are, so an aerial view of the entire stadium like this is rare.
Stanford stands against Oregon. Camera operators typically try to disguise just how packed the stands are, so an aerial view of the entire stadium like this is rare.

In the 4th quarter of a tight game against Arizona, the stadium is still packed with dozens of Stanford fans, obstreperous as ever:

The 4th quarter of a 1-score game against Arizona.
The 4th quarter of a 1-score game against Arizona.

At first glance, it might appear that Stanford fans are avoiding sitting next to one another (suggesting they find each other as insufferable as we find them), but they have quite obviously calculated their optimal distribution in the stands to maximize crowd volume. That’s Stanford smarts.

Quarterback

Stanford is led by redshirt junior quaterback K.J. Costello.

KJ Costello’s page on ESPN.
K.J. Costello’s page on ESPN.

The first thing you must know about K.J. Costello is that he’s absolutely clutch. Take last year’s Sun Bowl victory over Pitt, for instance. K.J. Costello threw an absolute dime to RB Cameron Scarlett in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown:

QB KJ Costello throws the game-winning touchdown pass to RB Cameron Scarlett.
QB K.J. Costello throws the game-winning touchdown pass to RB Cameron Scarlett.

This play was officially ruled a fumble recovery for a touchdown, but this is because official scorekeepers can’t fathom Costello’s immense football acumen. Of course he meant for the Pitt defensive lineman to slam him on his back so hard that he dislodged the football right to Cameron Scarlett as he was being spun to the ground. That’s just a heads-up play, really. That sort of skillful play epitomizes Stanford: good things don’t just happen to you because you were born into privilege. No, you earned it!

As a Stanford quarterback, K.J. Costello is obviously a genius, the likes of which Cal fans can’t begin to comprehend. I mean, look at this heads-up play:

KJ Costello wisely catches the deflection and throws it again for a double pass play.
K.J. Costello wisely catches the deflection and throws it again for a double pass play.

You might think to yourself, “hey, I thought it was against the rules to throw a forward pass twice,” but that’s because you didn’t grow up with a Stanford pedigree to teach you that the rules don’t apply to you.

Costello actually represents a departure from the typical Stanford offense that we’ve grown accustomed to under coach David Shaw. Rated as highly as 5 stars by some recruiting services, it’s clear that Costello has a lot more arm talent to work with than the typical Stanford quarterback (whose primary duty under Shaw was to hand the ball off to the running back). In 2013, Stanford was bottom-10 in the FBS in the number of passing plays they ran, choosing to throw the ball 35.93% of the time. This is about 10% higher than Georgia Tech, a team running the triple option at the time. That passing play percentage statistic fell as low as 35.63% for the 2015 season. With Shaw’s faith placed firmly in Costello, that percentage rose to #15 in the FBS in 2018 with Stanford passing 54% of the time. That percentage rose higher still this season, as Stanford currently sits at #10 in the FBS by throwing the ball an astounding 56% of the time. Let that sink in: Stanford is top 10 in the country in something.

If you take a look at Costello on the field, it becomes apparent why Stanford has such faith in him. He has tremendous arm strength:

Costello overthrows his receiver out of bounds.
Costello overthrows his receiver out of bounds.

Combine that arm strength with his elite vision:

KJ Costello throws an interception.
K.J. Costello throws an interception.

And it becomes pretty apparent why Costello is such a fearless gunslinger:

Costello pass intended for TE Colby Parkinson is nearly intercepted.
Costello pass intended for TE Colby Parkinson is nearly intercepted.

One of the things I noticed watching the Big Game last year was how frequently both teams used plays they hadn’t put on tape before. One of the novel plays from Stanford was having Costello run the zone-read option and running it himself to try and keep the edge defenders honest. Costello has a sort of deceptive speed a la Manning or Goff, where he isn’t a slow runner but the main reason a run will be successful is because no one expects it. In the following clip, we can see not only Costello’s speed, but his technique for when he needs to block a small female downfield:

Costello scrambles for a first down, then savagely attacks an innocent woman on the sidelines.
Costello scrambles for a first down, then savagely attacks an innocent woman on the sidelines.

Suffice it to say that K.J. Costello is a well-rounded quarterback. Unfortunately for Stanford, he’s been dealing with some nagging injuries (his last injury was “undisclosed,” but he suffered a thumb injury earlier in the season), and so his highly-touted backup, Davis Mills, has seen some action.

[Author’s note: Hours before this article was due to be published, Stanford released its latest depth chart, and K.J. Costello was notably absent. It seems that Davis Mills will start the Big Game.]

Contrary to popular opinion, Davis Mills is actually another 5 star QB and not the name of a popular oatmeal brand. Although he struggled in his first few games, he was actually the quarterback that led Stanford to an upset victory over Washington this season. Despite being just a redshirt sophomore, it’s clear that Mills has been absorbing everything Costello has been teaching him. In the following clip, we see that Mills also likes to force throws to TE Colby Parkinson against all rhyme or reason:

QB Davis Mills throws into triple coverage.
QB Davis Mills throws into triple coverage.

A true Stanford quarterback is not afraid of any number of defenders, and Stanford athletes are quite good at forcing balls where they don’t belong.

As mentioned earlier in the article, a crucial part of being a Stanford quarterback is the ability to hand the ball off to the running back. In the following play, we can see that Mills can almost do that:

QB Davis Mills fumbles the zone read handoff.
QB Davis Mills fumbles the zone read handoff.

Running back

Going against one of the worst run defenses in the country at the time in Oregon State, Stanford was going to lean heavily on their stellar offensive line and their blockers. David Shaw, a mastermind of play-calling, is an innovator in creative (and exciting!) plays. Here, Stanford deftly uses a 3 tight end set to block on this run. Just check out how many yards stud RB Cameron Scarlett gains on this run:

RB Cameron Scarlett tackled for a loss despite 3 TEs blocking for him.
RB Cameron Scarlett tackled for a loss despite 3 TEs blocking for him.

After seeing how successful that play was, David Shaw did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to determine how he could make this play even more successful in the red zone. Eureka! He’s got it. Good luck trying to stop FOUR tight ends on this play:

RB Cameron Scarlett stuffed behind 4 TEs against the worst run defense in the conference.
RB Cameron Scarlett stuffed behind 4 TEs against the worst run defense in the conference.

Oregon State never stood a chance.

We all know Stanford loves to run the ball, and with the offensive line as good as it is at Stanford, it’s only natural (especially earlier in the season, before injuries forced Stanford to use only 7-8 blockers instead of the usual 9 or 10). Stanford was in a close game against a totally not-overrated UCF team; a team that justified early season talks of being the first G5 team to crash the playoffs by now holding the 5th best record in the American Athletic Conference. David Shaw, offensive innovator he is, thought long and hard about how he could get more blockers to the line of scrimmage. It’s 3rd and 12 inside the opponent’s red zone, so you know you have to be aggressive if you want to score a touchdown. Well, there’s nothing more aggressive than putting an extra blocker on the line of scrimmage by— get this— not even having a quarterback on the play! With an extra blocker, the other team has no chance of stopping the indomitable Stanford run game:

RB Austin Jones runs the wildcat.
RB Austin Jones runs the wildcat.

There’s whispers from inside the program that this was actually Shaw’s “vulcanized rubber” moment— that is to say, a complete accident that turned into a resounding success. Apparently Costello forgot he was supposed to be on the field on the play, and the quick-thinking Jones wisely took the snap himself to try and make something happen. After seeing how wildly successful the play was, we can probably expect to see a lot more of the “Wild Tree” formation.

Receivers

Stanford has some sure-handed receivers. If Costello gets time to throw, the wide receiver is wide open, and the ball hits him in the hands, then you just know the other team is in trouble with the playmakers Stanford has:

WR Connor Wedington drops an easy catch.
WR Connor Wedington drops an easy catch.

Look at the focus and determination Wedington has. You can see him clutch his head with his hands as he intensifies his focus. It’s no wonder that Wedington occasionally catches a pass:

WR Connor Wedington can’t catch a pass thrown too hard by QB David Mills.
WR Connor Wedington can’t catch a pass thrown too hard by QB David Mills.

A great wide receiver will always have the presence of mind to go up and make the catch, and tap his feet in bounds. WR Osiris St. Brown (the brother of USC WR Amon-Ra St. Brown) definitely has one of those things.

WR Osiris St. Brown does a nice job of getting open and making the catch 5 yards out of bounds.
WR Osiris St. Brown does a nice job of getting open and making the catch 5 yards out of bounds.

St. Brown has demonstrated that he has hands as good as any wide receiver on the team:

Osiris St. Brown drops an easy throw.
Osiris St. Brown drops an easy throw.

Stanford’s leading receiver is Michael Wilson, but I just noticed I don’t have any clips of him. This should probably tell you something: he hasn’t done anything notable or exciting enough to put in this article. For shame.

Now, we have to talk about Costello’s favorite target, Colby Parkinson. Parkinson is 6’7”, and Costello knows he can count on Parkinson to always make the catch by using his big, athletic frame to box out smaller defensive backs. Let’s take a look at one of Parkinson’s many highlight plays, where you can see Parkinson does a really good job of almost getting open and then almost making a catch. If that pesky corner Camryn Bynum wasn’t there to cover Parkinson and then tip the pass away as Parkinson was about to catch it, there is a chance that Parkinson might have made this catch. Just an all-around great effort on the play:

Costello pass intended for TE Colby Parkinson deflected by CB Cam Bynum.
Costello pass intended for TE Colby Parkinson deflected by CB Cam Bynum.

In the following clip, we can see just how much Parkinson has grown as a receiver thanks to the tutelage of JJ Arcega-Whiteside. There’s a cameraman intentionally obscuring Parkinson’s genius (Stanford doesn’t want other teams to be able to watch this tape and steal all of Stanford’s best moves), but watch closely. You can see Parkinson use both hands to shove Cam Bynum in the back, show great receiver vision in tracking Costello’s pass as it sails 5 feet over his head, and flex his football IQ by flailing his arms wildly to try to draw a flag. He then shows off both his vision and football IQ together by immediately spotting the nearest referee and complaining about the lack of a flag. This just has all the elements of a great play by the receiver:

TE Colby Parkinson shoves Cam Bynum in the back with both hands, pass sails over his head, and he flails his arms hoping to draw a flag.
TE Colby Parkinson shoves Cam Bynum in the back with both hands, pass sails over his head, and he flails his arms hoping to draw a flag.

Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Stanford has an extra Arcega-Whiteside. So unfair to other teams! Very envious.

You might think that Colby Parkinson is a glorified slot receiver that can’t block well, but that’s not true at all. Here he is using his size and his speed to slow down 185 lb. Washington State CB Marcus Strong:

TE Colby Parkinson beaten by CB Marcus Strong on the screen pass.
TE Colby Parkinson beaten by CB Marcus Strong on the screen pass.

I saved the best for last. WR Simi Fehoko is an emerging star receiver for Stanford in the wake of JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s departure, and he has become the new go-to red zone target. Let’s take a look first, and then break it down:

QB KJ Costello throws a duck, off the hands of WR Simi Fehoko despite the shove to get open.
QB K.J. Costello throws a duck, off the hands of WR Simi Fehoko despite the shove to get open.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack in this play. First, let’s take a moment to admire the velocity of the ball Costello threw. Velocity is defined as the rate of change of position with respect to time, and we can definitely say this ball changed position over time. Next, look at the way that Fehoko gets open: he uses two hands to shove the defender away from him to create space (the ref, likely mesmerized by the laser Costello just threw, didn’t have time to process this play before the ball arrived). Fehoko snatches the ball out of the air with both hands— despite Costello’s cannon arm, this ball mysteriously managed to mysteriously float just in front of Fehoko for what feels like an eternity. As Fehoko’s foot first touches down, he wisely releases the ball before completing the catch: the defense can’t hit you if you don’t have the ball. That’s Stanford football. Smart.

Special Teams

Connor Wedington is decent at kickoff returns, I guess. Stanford had a very reliable kicker in Jet Toner, but he has unfortunately been lost for the season due to injury. Contrary to popular belief, he was not named after printer ink cartridges (which are typically expensive, and hence this makes a lot of sense as a Stanfurdian name), but instead “JET” are his initials; short for John Edwards Toner V, which is exactly the name you expect to hear after someone informs you that they go to Stanford. Since Toner’s injury, the punter Ryan Sanborn has taken over the kicking duties. It’s hard to tell if Shaw has little faith in his kicker or if this is his brand of conservatism, but here’s Stanford punting from the opponent’s 35 yard line:

Stanford punts from the Wazzu 35.
Stanford punts from the Wazzu 35.

If you ever have too much time on your hands, you can watch this hour long special about football’s saddest punts, and you’ll probably see how pointless punts like these are, especially in the modern era with advanced analytics that basically tell you to always go for it here on 4th down. Winning the field position battle might make sense against a team that struggles to move the ball like Cal, but this just meant completing one extra pass for Wazzu. Probably not coincidentally, Stanford is dead-last in the Pac-12 in 4th down success rate, going for it on 4th down an average of 1 time per game (very scandalous). However, if there’s one game where you can expect Stanford to break trends, it’s this one.

Conclusion

Stanford is definitely a team that has an offense for approximately half the game. They have a quarterback, a running back, some receivers, and also sometimes an offensive line. I can definitely attest to these facts. Unfortunately for Stanford, Cal has a defense, and they will present a large obstacle to Stanford’s scoring chances, as it is considerably more difficult for the Stanford offense to move the ball when there is an opposing team on the field. This game will be brutal. Like World War III, or something.

Go Bears!