Can Stanford salvage season with a win vs. Oregon?

ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 14: Stanford Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello (3) looks to pass the ball during the football game between the UCF Knights and the Stanford Cardinals on September 14, 2019 at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 14: Stanford Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello (3) looks to pass the ball during the football game between the UCF Knights and the Stanford Cardinals on September 14, 2019 at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

It’s been a rough start to the season for the Stanford Cardinal but can David Shaw’s team salvage what looks like a season with a win vs. Oregon?

Stanford fans, and college football fans, in general, have been spoiled by David Shaw’s ability to seemingly always pull a rabbit out of his hat. The Cardinal head coach has never had a losing season in his current gig, and even when Stanford stumbles out of the gate, as it did two seasons ago, presto: Shaw always has a Bryce Love or JJ Arcega-Whiteside to make some magic.

That said, it’s possible that Shaw might need to pull off his greatest trick ever to avoid a sub-.500 campaign and Stanford’s first bowl-less season since way back in 2008 when some fellow named Jim Harbaugh paced the sideline. There is plenty of time for the 1-2 Cardinal to avoid a spiral of misery, but there’s also mounting evidence that this particular team just doesn’t have the kind of talent fans have come to expect.

Cameron Scarlett is easy to root for considering how long he’s waited his turn behind the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Love, but he’s not the kind of dynamo either of those two players were — and to be fair, his consistent average of just over four yards per carry over the years means we kind of always knew that. Connor Wedington could turn into the playmaker du jour, as could hulking tight end Colby Parkinson, but neither has had a breakout performance in 2019.

Offensive line centerpiece Walker Little is sorely missed, and he won’t be back after having season-ending leg surgery. On the other side of the ball, the front seven, usually a pillar of strength for Stanford, looks downright ordinary so far and has health problems of its own with linebacker Ricky Miezan potentially out for a while. But whether injuries or a talent deficit are to blame, the numbers on defense don’t lie: After a solid start in a season-opening victory over Northwestern, the Stanford D has been gashed to the tune of 1,037 yards the last two weeks against USC and UCF.

The last thing the Cardinal need to see is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation come to town, but that’s exactly what they’ll get when Justin Herbert and Oregon arrive on Saturday. The No. 16 Ducks lost a close one to Auburn in their first game, but have since rolled to consecutive blowout wins against Nevada and Montana. Herbert found his groove in those wins, tossing 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions, and it’s safe to assume he’ll show up at Stanford Stadium with no shortage of confidence. He’s also got an array of capable receivers, led by wideout Johnny Johnson III, and the support of a productive backfield by committee featuring Travis Dye, CJ Verdell and Darrian Felix.

The Oregon defense, often the team’s Achilles’ heel, has shown signs that it might not be too shabby either, giving up less than 300 total yards per game, albeit with some less than inspiring opposition bolstering that number. Even against Auburn, the Ducks came just a few plays short of protecting a late lead after forcing a pair of interceptions and winning the time of possession battle.

That’s a somewhat long-winded way of saying the Ducks are pretty good while the Cardinal has so far shown signs that they are not — or at least not yet. Upending Oregon can put Stanford’s season back on the right track, a familiar one that leads to a winning record and a bowl bid, and there are reasons to believe Shaw and company can pull it off.

Quarterback K.J. Costello is a good place to start. After missing the USC game with a head injury suffered against Northwestern, Costello returned to face UCF and played some uninspiring football, completing less than half his passes for just 199 yards, one score and one interception. But with another week to get past his ailment and the knowledge that he’s got to carry the offense, it wouldn’t be a shock to see a much better Costello against Oregon. Stanford hasn’t been a quarterback-led team since Andrew Luck left town, but if it turns the senior loose against Oregon — and the freshman-laden line can give him even modest time to operate — it might start seeing why expectations for Costello were so high entering the season.

His counterpart on the other side of the ball is cornerback Paulson Adebo, an All-American talent who’s already opened his INT account for 2019. He’ll have his hands full against Oregon’s speedy receiving corps but is up to the challenge if he gets some help. Stanford needs to accept that it doesn’t have its usual rugged front and find some way to pressure Herbert, who has shown that despite his talent, he can be rattled with people continuously in his face. If the Cardinal have some blitzes to dial up that they haven’t shown yet, this week would be the time.

Shaw has his role to play in an upset bid too, even if it’s one that’s a little outside his normal comfort zone. Stanford’s head man always seems self-assured to the point of bordering on smug, secure in the knowledge that his talented and well-coached teams will prevail or at least not go down without a heck of a fight, and his record backs up that attitude. This year already feels different, like it’s on the verge of slipping away, and it’s not hard to find members of the media already writing the Cardinal off. Shaw doesn’t get to play the “nobody believes in us” card as a motivational ploy very often, but he can now, and probably should.

Oregon is only the first of five currently ranked teams remaining on Stanford’s schedule, but the good news is that only one of the remaining four, a home date against Washington, comes prior to mid-November. If the Cardinal can defeat the Ducks and follow that with a victory in a very winnable contest at Oregon State next week, the road to a bowl game and perhaps even a Pac-12 North title starts to go from completely blurry to “squint and you can see it.” Without racking up some wins now, the closing stretch of the schedule at Washington State, then home against Cal and Notre Dame looks like a hill too tough to climb.

Sometimes it’s only possible to see the game that swung a season for a football team one way or the other in hindsight, but for Stanford, the Oregon game has all the makings of one that can save 2019 with a win or prove the naysayers right with a loss.

We’ll see on Saturday if Shaw, Costello and the rest of the crew can work enough wizardry to avoid the latter.

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