When junior Walker Little started at left tackle his freshman two seasons ago, he became the first Cardinal freshman to do so since the turn of the century. After Little suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against Northwestern, Stanford turned to another freshman to start on the offensive line, Walter Rouse.
Like Little, who was a consensus five-star recruit, Rouse was highly touted out of Sidwell Friends School in the nation’s capital. But not much can prepare you for a first-career start in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“It means the world to me,” Rouse said. “Coming in, first start against USC, I was just full of excitement.”
Before Little, the last true freshman to start at left tackle was Kirk Chambers ’04, who came to the Farm in 2000. The year prior, Stanford was the 1999 Pac-10 champions. That class will be recognized during the game for its 20th anniversary.
Stanford (3-4, 2-3 Pac-12) will host Arizona (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) for the final contest of a three-game homestand on Saturday. The two sides will meet for the first time since 2016, and the first time on the Farm since 2015.
On the weekend designated to celebrate alumni, history and Stanford tradition, Cardinal football will instead feature record numbers of freshmen talent. Stanford is tied for the nation’s high with appearances by fifteen true freshmen, including seven who have started.
The most glaring erosion has been along the offensive line, where five different starting combinations have debuted, four freshmen have started, and five have been ruled out for the season. For just the second time this season, Stanford is anticipating starting the same five in back-to-back weeks.
Due to the hemorrhaging, junior tight end Tucker Fisk has been in drills with the offensive line and working with offensive line coach Kevin Carberry.
“The rumors are true — I have been cycling in with the offensive line,” Fisk said. “My take on it is just that we’re running out of offensive linemen so we need someone to step up, and if I’m the guy they want to step up, then I’ll do it.”
That offensive line was protecting its third starting quarterback of the season last game, sophomore Jack West, who was making his first career start.
“I don’t think it really matters who is in at quarterback,” Rouse said. “If we can communicate and the quarterback always does their job, then we won’t have a problem.”
Senior captain K.J. Costello has not played since Sep. 21 against Oregon and junior Davis Mills exited in the fourth quarter against Washington. While Mills has been ruled out, head coach David Shaw ’94 is holding out hope for Costello to return to action.
“We’re hopeful,” Shaw said of Costello after Wednesday night’s practice. “K.J. is somewhere between questionable and probable.”
West was sacked seven times last game, the highest total for a Stanford opponent since Sep. 30, 2016, when Stanford suffered a 44-6 defeat in Husky Stadium. Ryan Burns was sacked six times that game and Keller Chrsyt twice.
“Especially after this last game, [Carberry] has been taking us back to technique,” Rouse said.
West finished 15-32 for 143 yards. The majority of those yards, 86, came on Stanford’s first and last possessions, during which West was 6-9. On the last drive, West went 4-4 to set up a fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett touchdown before an incompletion on the two-point conversion.
“Did not get the production from the quarterback position,” Shaw said. “As far as Jack is concerned, [he] played well in the first series and the last series. And in between was okay at times and some things were not okay.”
Had he been available, senior kicker Jet Toner would likely have attempted the PAT after the final score. Toner was injured on a kickoff return in the second quarter and has been ruled out for the season. Since taking over kicking duties his sophomore season, Toner has hit 47-57 career field goals, tied for fifth-most in school history, and was a perfect 100-100 on career PATs.
Freshman punter Ryan Sanborn took over kicking duties and nailed his first career PAT earlier in the game, a role in which he will continue on Saturday.
“One of the things I’m very happy with is that we recruit the right guys,” Shaw said. “We’ve got a great mentality on this team, great leadership. We are learning how to handle difficult situations.”
Stanford’s defense struggled to contain UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who exploded for 192 passing yards and 66 rushing yards in last weekend’s 34-16 loss. The task will not be any easier with Arizona’s Khalil Tate on Saturday.
Thompson-Robinson “was really the fastest quarterback we played all season, and then we’ll probably face a faster one,” said fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill. “That was really helpful to kind of get that taste in our mouth and understand what we need to do, where our breakdowns happen, so we can be better prepared this week.”
Tate is averaging 34 rushing yards and 220 passing yards per game while leading an offense ranked 13th in the country and second in the conference in total offense at 491.6 yards per game.
“There are moments where Khalil Tate looks like one of the best offensive skill players in the country, so keeping him in check is a priority,” Shaw said. “We have to be able to run the football with efficiency. At times, these guys have been stout on defense.”
Although the Wildcats are next to last in the Pac-12 in total defense at 469.6 yards per game, the defense sports two of the just ten linebackers in the conference to have accumulated over 50 tackles this season. If Stanford is able to maintain a balanced offense, Scarlett, whose 598 rushing yards are currently fourth in the conference, will likely see many more touches.
Cornerback Lorenzo Burns has 10 passes defended this year, which is tied for 10th nationally. On Stanford’s sideline, junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, who has tallied 12 passes defended, is tied for sixth in the sport. Adebo and the Stanford defense rank sixth in the Pac-12, allowing 402.4 yards per game.
The Cardinal have gone to 10 straight bowl games, the longest streak in school history and the longest active streak in the Pac-12. To reach an eleventh straight, Stanford will need to win three of the season’s final five contests.
“We’ve been in tough positions before,” Toohill said. “Even if our backs are against the wall, we know how to fight.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.