Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A between Josh Yuen, football beat writer for The Daily Californian, and King Jemison, football columnist for the Stanford Daily. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Josh Yuen: I grew up in Palo Alto and went to high school right across the street from Stanford Stadium, so I’m not used to seeing Stanford sitting at 4-6 at this point in the year — at least this past decade. If there’s one thing that can explain the team’s struggles in 2019, what is it?
King Jemison: The easy answer is injuries. Stanford is currently starting three true freshmen on the offensive line, and none of them were on the first team depth chart at the beginning of the season. When you lump those injuries in with the revolving door at quarterback — as both K.J. Costello and Davis Mills have missed significant time this season — it’s easy to see why the offense has struggled. Defensively, there’s been lots of turnover at linebacker and in the secondary due to injuries as well. All told, 18 true freshmen have seen the field for Stanford this season. For a program built on experience and consistency, horrible injury luck like Stanford has suffered in 2019 is killer. But if you want the hard answer, Stanford has been on a consistent decline since the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season. Recruiting has dipped, though not too far, and the program is just not the rushing and defensive juggernaut it once was. So injuries exacerbated the situation, but the foundation for a frustrating season was already there.
JY: It seems like this year is the year of the injured quarterback in the Pac-12. What’s the latest on K.J. Costello and how his injuries have affected the productivity of Stanford’s receivers?
KJ: Costello is out for (the) Big Game. That means Davis Mills will get his fifth career start after a program record passing performance against Wazzu. Coming into the season, Stanford’s passing game looked like the most obvious strength of this team. Costello returned from a season where he led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with over 3,500 yards, and the young receiving corp is dripping with talent. That talent has been largely wasted thanks to the injuries at quarterback, but last week showed that this unit can break out when they get solid quarterback play.
JY: Did anybody see Davis Mills’ 504-yard performance coming? Can he sustain any sort of momentum from last weekend against an above-average Cal defense?
KJ: Honestly, Mills has been the better quarterback all season. Costello’s injuries have left him looking like a shell of his former self. Meanwhile, Mills lit up Oregon State and Washington early in the season. If not for a fourth quarter injury he suffered against UW, he might have been the starter for the rest of the season. But when he returned against Wazzu, it was obvious that he did not miss a beat, though his two-second half interceptions were daggers. Mills has always possessed the talent, as he was ranked as the top quarterback in the country coming out of high school. Now that he is mostly healthy, he really has unlimited upside. That said, Cal’s secondary will probably be the best he has faced yet — so (the) Big Game will tell whether Mills is really ready to be the next Stanford Heisman runner-up.
JY: The list of recent Stanford tailbacks who have excelled during their time on the Farm is endless — Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney, Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love, etc. Do you feel like high expectations got the best of Cameron Scarlett or did David Shaw anticipate moving the offense into a more pass-heavy scheme?
KJ: Because of the offensive line injuries, Shaw was forced to give up his ideal “three yards and a cloud of dust” offensive scheme in the middle of last season. I think he always knew this would be a pass-first team, like it or not. Nothing against Cameron Scarlett, but he simply does not have the big-play potential of Bryce Love and Christian McCaffrey. Scarlett is a physical runner who always manages to get something out of nothing. His toughness has actually impressed me this season. But with the horrible injury luck along the offensive line this season — not to mention the appalling lack of depth before games even began — there was no way Stanford would be capable of winning games on the ground in 2019.
JY: Defensively, can you pinpoint the biggest strengths and weaknesses, particularly over the past few weeks?
KJ: Stanford’s defense is good when it gets pressure on the quarterback. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, QBs facing Stanford have time to write a few emails and maybe catch up on Twitter and Instagram before the pass rush gets to them. Still, Casey Toohill is one of the top sack artists in the Pac-12, and Stanford has a few other promising pass rushers, particularly Thomas Booker. Stanford’s pass rush can be a strength of this defense. But it just has been a weakness over the past few weeks, a fact which is largely responsible for the defensive disasters over that stretch. Overall, the Cardinal are much better against the run than the pass. Stanford ranks a respectable 56th nationally in rushing yards per game, but Lance Anderson’s unit sits at a woeful 114th in passing defense. I know Cal’s passing offense is struggling this season, but pretty much everybody has been able to air it out on the Cardinal.
JY: What’s the biggest thing Stanford needs to do to keep the Axe for another year?
KJ: Hand the keys to Davis Mills, and let him drive the bus to a 10th straight Big Game victory. Mills and these receivers can take over the game. Cal has the better defense, Cal may have the better run game, but Stanford has a massive quarterback and skill position advantage in this matchup. If the Cardinal can throw on the Bears, they should be able to do enough defensively to hang on to the Axe.
JY: Do you have an early score prediction for Saturday’s game?
KJ: Stanford 23, Cal 19. I see lots of field goals in this one. Stanford’s offense under Mills is good enough to get the ball into the red zone, but they may not be efficient enough to finish drives on a stingy Cal defense. Stanford’s defense is bad enough to allow a woeful Cal offense to move the ball, but they should be able to bring out the “bend, don’t break” approach to force field goal attempts. Mills leads a late touchdown drive to give Stanford its 10th straight Big Game victory and jumpstart his 2020 Heisman runner-up campaign.