PALO ALTO, California — This was supposed to be the year that 2017 Heisman runner-up Bryce Love charged his way to the podium at the PlayStation Theater in midtown Manhattan, where he’d become the first Stanford player in almost a half century to claim that bronze stiff-arm trophy.
Love returned to college football this fall as one of its biggest stars, having turned down the NFL for a chance to lead the Cardinal to a Pac-12 title — if not more — and to thrive behind an offensive line that returned four starters. He seemed well-positioned to do what Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck and Christian McCaffrey couldn’t: bring home the Heisman.
Then K.J. Costello came to the line of scrimmage in the season opener against San Diego State.
“It was a huge eye-opener,” Costello said. “They were going to make sure to do whatever they could to make sure [Love] couldn’t beat [them].”
That night set the tone for a remarkably sluggish start to the season for Love, who last year ran for a school-record 2,118 yards. Love finished with 29 yards on 18 carries, his lowest output dating to October 2016, when he was a backup to McCaffrey and rushed for 24 yards on three attempts in a loss at Colorado.
With defenses determined to shut down Love, Stanford has made an subtle but unprecedented shift in philosophy under head coach David Shaw.
At a program that forged its rugged reputation with a version of between-the-tackles football that has gradually fallen out of favor, the Cardinal have finally taken to the air unlike ever before for a Shaw-coached team. Even Luck didn’t get to throw it around like this.
Through four games, Stanford has passed on 53 percent of its plays (up from the previous Shaw-era high of 47.1 percent in 2014) and accounted for 71.7 percent of its total offensive yards through the air (the previous high was 59.1, also in 2014), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Stanford is also averaging just 28.5 rushes per game, almost six attempts fewer than its previous low (34.3 in 2017).
“Obviously teams try to stop Bryce Love, but this is also what we’ve recruited to,” Shaw said. “This is what we had in mind, for us to be a dangerous passing team.”
However, this version of the seventh-ranked Cardinal might seem a little more familiar to No. 8 Notre Dame when both teams meet Saturday.
In last year’s game, which Stanford won 38-20 at home, Costello threw for four touchdowns and 176 yards while Love churned his way to 125 yards rushing in 20 carries. It was a night that announced Costello and the Cardinal as capable of burning any defense too focused on Love.
“We didn’t really prove to everybody else that we were solidified in our passing game,” Costello said. “Or that a defensive coordinator should respect that more than the run. Most teams are still trying to stop the traditional Stanford powerhouse offense.”
In the 6-foot-5 Costello, the archetype strong-armed, golden-haired quarterback from Southern California, Stanford has found someone as satisfied with audibling to a run as he is eager to exploit a one-on-one matchup with one of his receivers.
Costello is a product of Santa Margarita High School in Orange County, where he broke Carson Palmer’s passing records and excelled in one of the most competitive high school leagues in the country. He went to Stanford hoping to learn more about how to operate in an NFL-style offense and gradually grow into the role of a star.
“I wanted to be in a position where my job was more than leaning on my arm,” said Costello, who picked Stanford over USC and Michigan in the spring of 2015. He redshirted his first year and didn’t take over the starting job until a few games into the 2017 season.
“I know they wanted to groom him and give him enough time to be ready to take the helm,” said Rick Curtis, his former high school head coach. “What people are finding out now is that this kid is something special.”
Helping Costello grow into his role is a bevy of big targets, with Stanford’s top five receivers ranging in height from 6-2 (Trenton Irwin and Osiris St. Brown) to 6-7 (Colby Parkinson). The leaders of that unit are JJ Arcega-Whiteside (6-3) and Kaden Smith (6-5), who have been so effective this year that they’ve opened up running lanes for Love later in the game.
That was most noticeable in the Cardinal’s most recent game at Oregon, where they pulled off an improbable rally from 24-7 in the third quarter — the Ducks’ win probability at that point was 99 percent — and again down 31-28 with less than a minute left in regulation.
Late in the third quarter, Costello led a blisteringly precise, three-play, 65-yard drive that started with an 11-yard completion to Parkinson and a 32-yarder to Smith. The possession ended with Love scampering around the right side for a 22-yard touchdown, his longest run of the day.
“Once we started hitting Kaden and Colby,” Arcega-Whiteside said, “then they opened up a little bit.”
But Stanford would still like to get Love going, and earlier, even if it doesn’t get him back into the Heisman race.
To stay undefeated while navigating a schedule that still includes a road trip to No. 11 Washington, the Cardinal probably will need 2018 Love to produce a little more like 2017 Love.
Love has rushed for 254 yards in three games this year, missing one against UC Davis because of an undisclosed injury. His per-carry average (4.3) is almost half of his average (8.0) from a year ago.
“We’ve been a little unbalanced the last couple of games, out of necessity,” Shaw said. “The bottom line for me is we’ve got to be more efficient running the ball and we’ve got to be more consistent staying on blocks.
“Bryce is ready. If we get on our blocks, he’s going to make some big plays.”