College football scheduling can be a tricky thing, mainly because you can never get it right. We love to excoriate schools like Alabama and Oregon for stacking their schedules with Directional State and Hostess U, but we've also seen firsthand what happens when you agree to play a Big Ten or ACC school on the other side of the country and end up with nothing more than an early morning kickoff, an upset loss, and a long flight home.
In general, though, Stanford strikes a pretty good balance. Notre Dame will always be on the non-conference schedule, and though they might no longer be a consistent national power, they're at least a national name. The midrange team last year and this was San Diego State, but that role's been played in the past by teams like Central Florida, Army, and Duke.
All of which brings us to UC-Davis. While I'd prefer that Stanford look to rekindle the series with San Jose State, it doesn't necessarily bother me that the Cardinal dipped down to play a lower division team. There is always value in playing a game, even if the outcome of the game is predetermined.
But what if things don't go as planned? Early in the game -- and it was early, the 11:00am kickoff was the earliest starting time in school history -- there were danger signs everywhere, and every Stanford fan over the age of 30 surely spent much of the first quarter trying desperately not to think about the Cardinal's stunning loss to the Aggies back in 2005. It couldn't happen again? Could it?
Whether it was because their best player was wearing shorts on the sideline or because nothing about their opponents interested them or even just because they were disoriented by the fact that sun was shining from the wrong side of the stadium, nothing seemed to be go right for the Stanford offense in the early going.
The first drive pushed across midfield before ending in a punt, but then things got ugly. On 2nd and 12 from his own 10, quarterback K.J. Costello threw a careless interception that led to a field goal and an improbable 3-0 lead for UC-Davis, and then just to prove the first one wasn't a fluke, Costello threw another interception to end the next drive. This one didn't lead to any points, but it sent waves of discomfort through Stanford Twitter as fans began to panic. The offense finally started to put some plays together after that, but when the first quarter came to an end, Stanford still trailed 3-0.
But the drive that had closed out the first quarter bled into the second and began to feel refreshingly familiar. Although backup running backs Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights were having trouble establishing themselves, Costello was able to convert a 3rd and 7, a 4th and 8 (!), and a 3rd and 6, moving the ball deep into Aggie territory. When they arrived at 3rd and 6 at the Davis 9, it was only a matter of time.
Major League Baseball has done away with the four-pitch intentional walk, choosing instead simply to wave the batter to first base in the interest of shortening games. It won't be long before the NCAA adopts a similar policy with respect to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and the Stanford offense. When the Cardinal gets inside an opponent's 10-yard line, the official will blow his whistle to stop the clock, then he'll debut a new signal -- perhaps two outstretched arms in an elongated clapping motion mimicking giant jaws -- and then he'll make an announcement to the crowd: "Because everyone knows what play Stanford is about to run, and because the opponents freely acknowledge that they cannot defend this play, Stanford has been awarded a touchdown and six points." Think of the time we could save.
Since that rule has not yet been enacted, however, Costello and Arcega-Whiteside were compelled to go through the motions. Defensive back Vincent White did his best, but at just six feet tall and 187 pounds, he was giving up a lot to Arcega-Whiteside's 6'3" and 225, and the Stanford receiver is good at what he does. Touchdown Stanford.
It's interesting how this play has evolved over the past few seasons. Once upon a time the Cardinal ran a true end zone fade, meaning the wide receiver would try to beat his man at the line of scrimmage and run to a spot in the corner of the end zone. A successful play would see the receiver slip behind the defender before catching the ball just before fading out of bounds. It was a safe play because there was almost zero risk of an interception, but it also felt like a crap shoot. Sometimes it would work, but more often it wouldn't.
When Arcega-Whiteside burst on the scene two years ago, the coaching staff quickly realized that his basketball background gave him a huge advantage in the end zone, and the fade became a jump ball. The taller receiver -- or sometimes a tight end -- would get position against a smaller defender and simply outleap him for the ball. Recently, though, they've simplified things even more. On this touchdown against UC-Davis, Arcega-Whiteside purposely did not beat White. Instead he kept White in front of him, then turned around and boxed him out as if he were posting up under the basket. Just like Shaquille O'Neal in his prime, Arcega-Whiteside has the quickness to stay in front of the defender, the strength to hold his ground, and the length to gather in the ball. Watching the play, you can see that White realized the hopelessness of his situation. He couldn't get around to a proper defensive position, so he reached underneath his man's arms in an attempt to bat the ball away, but Arcega-Whiteside wasn't bothered. He gathered in the pass without much of an effort, and Stanford had a 7-3 lead.
A 31-yard field goal on the next Stanford possession stretched the lead to 10-3, and soon enough there would be an opportunity for more. When the Cardinal earned a 1st and goal at the 8, once again everyone in the stadium -- all five thousand fans -- knew what was coming. The Stanford offense broke the huddle with three receivers, but this time Arcega-Whiteside split out wide to the left instead of the right. No matter. The result was the same. Touchdown, Stanford.
The interesting thing about this play is how Costello executes it. If you pause the video at the moment Costello pulls the trigger, you'll notice that Arcega-Whiteside is blanketed by defensive back Jordan Perryman. Costello throws the pass anyway, knowing his receiver will make a play for him. After a second or so of jostling, Arcega-Whiteside emerges with Perryman on his back, and he leaps for the touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
It was Arcega-Whiteside's fifth touchdown this season and the 19th of his career, putting him in fifth place on the all-time Stanford list. There are lots of reasons to watch the Cardinal this season, but chief among them will be J.J.'s assault on the Stanford record book. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him match or exceed Ken Margerum's school record of 14 touchdowns in a single season, and if he accomplishes that he'll be within striking distance of Margerum's career mark of 32 scores. And as previously mentioned, he's got a nice chance to become Stanford's first thousand-yard receiver since 1999. Historic stuff.
The second half was rather uneventful. A touchdown run by Cameron Scarlett bookended by two Jet Toner field goals widened the lead to 30-3 before a late touchdown by UC-Davis set the final score at 30-10. A win is a win, but afterwards head coach David Shaw admitted that things hadn't gone as well as they had hoped, and he wasn't just talking about Costello's two early interceptions. The offensive line hadn't played well, and he cited sloppiness that led to multiple holding penalties, errors which might've proved costly had the opponent been more formidable. Thankfully, they weren't. A win is still a win.