There's persistence, and then there's stubbornness. The wordsmiths in Stanford University's English department could make a case study of football coach David Shaw's play-calling, as he utilizes running back Bryce Love.
Opposing defenses are preoccupied with stopping Love and usually manage to do so for long stretches of games, as Utah did last October at Rice-Eccles Stadium. And then came the dagger, Love’s 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
That's why Shaw often keeps feeding him ball, even when running sometimes seems futile. So is Shaw being persistent or just stubborn?
“You go back and forth between the two,” Shaw said Tuesday, as No. 14 Stanford prepares for Utah’s visit on Saturday night. The Utes are facing a third straight Pac-12 North opponent to begin conference play.
Love left last weekend's 38-17 loss at Notre Dame with an ankle injury. Shaw said his status will be “a late-week decision.” The ankle “doesn't look severe,” compared with last season's injury that caused Love to miss a game during his Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign.
The Utes expect to face Love, while remembering how he blistered their defense at key moments last season after generally being kept under control. “That's the type of back he is; he's a home-run back,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Stopping Love is “hard to do for an entire game,” Whittingham added. “That's what makes him great.”
Love ran for 161 yards on 20 attempts against Utah. The carry-by-carry breakdown is where it gets interesting. Of those 20 runs, 12 went for 2 or fewer yards, with several losses. Three runs (39, 19 and 68) accounted for 126 yards, with the 68-yarder giving the Cardinal a 23-13 lead in the fourth quarter of an eventual 23-20 win. Nothing is more rare for Love than a standard, 5-yard gain.
“He's one of those guys where you focus so heavily on gap protection and even then, if he breaks one tackle, he can go 60 yards just because he's so explosive,” Ute linebacker Chase Hansen said. “Once he hits that next gear, there's few people that can catch him.”
BRYCE LOVE BY THE NUMBERS
Career rushing statistics for Stanford’s Bryce Love:
2015 • 29 carries, 226 yards, 2 TDs.
2016 • 112 carries, 779 yards, 3 TDs.
2017 • 263 carries, 2,118 yards, 19 TDs.
2018 • 76 carries, 327 yards, 3 TDs.
Each of the first eight opponents he faced in 2017 gave up a 50-yard run to Love, whose speed makes Shaw marvel. “I don’t know that I’ve seen live, on-the-field acceleration like that since Rocket Ismail,” Shaw has said, citing the Notre Dame receiver who finished second in the 1990 Heisman voting.
How much would Stanford miss Love, if he’s sidelined Saturday? In a 15-14 win at Oregon State last season, the Cardinal rushed for only 81 yards — about half of Love’s lowest total in a game to that point of the season.
Thanks to quarterback K.J. Costello’s improvement, Stanford now is better equipped to thrive without Love — or even look elsewhere for production when he’s healthy. “There are other things that we can do,” Shaw said, noting the Cardinal’s decade-long reliance on a premier back. “More than any other year, we’ve proven that we can not be completely stubborn.”
That was especially in the season opener vs. San Diego State. Coach Rocky Long was determined to stop Love, and he succeeded: 18 carries, 29 yards. Costello, though, passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-10 win.
Knowing that defenses would gear themselves more than ever for Love as a senior, Shaw said during the Pac-12 Media Day in July, “We’re not going to do the Bryce Love stat watch.” He didn’t want Love worrying that he’s trailing his 2,118-yard pace of 2017.
That’s good strategy. Love has only 373 yards through four games (he sat out vs. UC Davis), although his trend of big gains continues. His 136-yard night vs. USC included a 59-yard run and Notre Dame allowed a 39-yard burst, even while holding Love to 73 yards on 17 carries before he exited.
UTAH AT NO. 14 STANFORD
When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN.