Late last Saturday, in the tunnel of the Coliseum, Graham Harrell was asked if his system, with its purposefully simple approach, might be better suited than most to withstand a change at quarterback. It was a scenario no offensive coordinator wanted to consider.
He paused for a beat, then offered a weak smile.
“I sure hope so,” Harrell said, knowing full well that his theory would soon be tested. “We’ll see.”
Up the coast, in Palo Alto, the same question lingered over the proceedings leading up to Saturday’s Pac-12 showdown between USC and Stanford at the Coliseum. Both conference blue bloods won their debuts last Saturday, but lost their starting quarterbacks — a potentially devastating blow in such a closely contested conference picture.
On Thursday, Stanford officially ruled out quarterback K.J. Costello, leaving backup Davis Mills to take the reins of a suddenly uncertain Cardinal offense. The former five-star prospect was mostly unremarkable in limited work a week ago, completing seven of 14 passes, and casting doubt over whether the Cardinal might be able to weather the absence of Costello, who was one of the Pac-12’s top passers a year ago.
Amid the outside panic over potential changes, Stanford coach David Shaw assured this week that all would remain the same with Mills under center.
“It’s not going to change our philosophy, not going to change our scheme,” Shaw told reporters. “All our quarterbacks know our offense.”
In Los Angeles, Clay Helton offered his version of the same message. All week, he’d proclaimed his confidence in Kedon Slovis, the freshman tasked with replacing JT Daniels at the helm of USC’s offense. For Slovis, the playbook was “wide open.” The system, supposedly built for such a situation, would remain the same.
Like Shaw, Helton did his best to downplay the significance of the change at quarterback.
“No matter who the quarterback is for the other team, no matter who the quarterback is for us, it’s about executing,” Helton said. “It’s about doing the things that we did last game and improving on them, getting that much better as a team.”
It’s fair to wonder, though, if either team stands any chance of improving without their starting quarterbacks in tow.
Mills does have the pedigree. The No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class, Mills was at one point one of the most coveted recruits in the nation. He has sat behind Costello ever since, giving him ample time to develop in Stanford’s system.
Slovis just picked up Harrell’s offense last spring, shortly before he attended his senior prom. At Desert Mountain High in Arizona, where he learned under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, Slovis was an overlooked, three-star prospect with only a handful of big-time offers. Now, with Daniels out for the season, the unproven freshman has had a week to confront the enormity of his circumstances.
So far, it doesn’t seem to have fazed him.
“It’s just the same game I’ve been playing forever,” Slovis said. “Nothing changes.”
Slovis, at least, seems to have the company line down pat. But against a Stanford defense that looked awfully stout last week, he’s going to need all the help he can get elsewhere.
That could mean a heavy dose of the run game, which hummed along for 175 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday against Fresno State. Since his arrival, Harrell has reiterated the importance of the run game to his version of the Air Raid. Never has that been more true than this week.
The same could also be the case for Stanford, though the Cardinal have never strayed all that far away from their ball-control approach.
With Costello, the offense was able to air it out more than in past seasons. As long as Stanford is without him, it’ll have to rely more on its run game, where the Cardinal uncharacteristically struggled a season ago, ranking 11th in the conference in rushing offense.
In a battle of backup quarterbacks, it’s impossible to know exactly what to expect from either USC’s or Stanford’s offense. Together, Mills and Slovis have thrown 24 total passes. The sample size is too small to draw much of a conclusion.
But Saturday, in their first collegiate starts, both teams will get a glimpse of what’s to come and just how much change their respective systems can withstand.