With the return of Stanford football, The Daily brings back its weekly roundtable discussions. Last season, Stanford went 4-8 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time under head coach David Shaw ’95. No. 12 Oregon, the first opponent of the all Pac-12 season, won its first and only game of 2020 in the Rose Bowl. But the Cardinal just two seasons ago made a furious comeback and shocked Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Ells Boone, Jibriel Taha and Sally Egan talk expectations, receivers and pressuring the quarterback.
Oregon is undoubtedly the favorite in this game, by the rankings, power indexes and the betting line. At the same time, Oregon has a first-year offensive coordinator and quarterback, and the notoriously belligerent Autzen Stadium will be devoid of fans. What will it take for Stanford to pull off the upset?
Jibriel Taha (JT): Two keys for me. The first is the Cardinal offensive line. With senior offensive tackle Walker Little opting out of the season, senior center Drew Dalman and senior offensive tackle Foster Sarell lead an offensive line facing a suffocating front seven in the Ducks, led by sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Cardinal need to find the run game they have been lacking the past few years as well as protect senior quarterback Davis Mills to have a chance Saturday afternoon. The other key for me is taking advantage of this unusual situation. Not only will Autzen Stadium be empty, but opt-outs stemming from the pandemic leave both these squads with quite a bit of uncertainty heading in to their first game — especially with no pre-conference FCS games to lead off the season. Oregon has their eyes set on the playoff, and they face a Stanford team with a massive chip on its shoulder coming off a 4-8 season. Don’t count out the Cardinal.
Ells Boone (EB): The simple answer for me is Davis Mills and the passing game. In order for the Cardinal to walk away from Eugene on Saturday with a win, Mills will have to be on the same page as his explosive receiving corps from the get-go. He showed flashes of what he can do last year, but he is going to have to step his play up a notch and show off the talent that made him the number one ranked quarterback in his class. Playing in a crowd-less environment reduces home field advantage for the Ducks so there is no better time to play an Oregon team that is replacing a few key players. With a few injuries already piling up for Stanford’s defense, this one very well may turn into a shootout. If the Cardinal’s offense can go toe-to-toe with Oregon’s, we just might see an upset come Saturday.
Sally Egan (SE): To me this comes down to which quarterback can perform better. Oregon just lost star quarterback Justin Herbert, who started 42 games across four seasons, to the NFL draft, leaving the Ducks with a lack of experience at the most critical position. The Cardinal also lost two-year starter KJ Costello, as he transferred to Mississippi State. Stanford will be starting senior Davis Mills, a highly ranked recruit coming out of high school, who showed some of his potential last year, but also made some critical mistakes. In eight games last year, including six starts, Mills averaged a modest 245 yards per game while throwing 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. I expect that he will have improved since then and could really have a breakout season if he truly is as good as his high school ranking would suggest. Oregon still hasn’t named who they will be starting, with their depth chart naming either Tyler Shough or Anthony Brown. This lack of experience for the Ducks can’t be overlooked, and if Stanford’s defensive line can take advantage of this and put pressure on the quarterback early, the Cardinal has a shot at winning.
Stanford has not been shy about its expectations for the wide receivers. With senior quarterback Davis Mills throwing the ball and the top four wideouts all returning, Stanford is looking to set some passing records this season. Which receiver is ready to make the biggest impact in game one?
JT: Opt-outs from senior defensive backs Thomas Graham and Brady Breeze and junior defensive back Jevon Holland leave holes for the Ducks to fill in their secondary. They have the depth to do so, but Stanford will look to exploit this with the talented wide receiver corps they bring into this season. My impact pick is junior wide receiver Michael Wilson. He led the team in receiving last year and amassed just over 40% of his total yards in the last three games — all of which were Davis Mills starts.
EB: Stanford’s receiving corps is up there with USC’s for the most talented in the Pac-12. One guy that I expect to have a big season, and of course have a large impact Game 1, is junior Simi Fehoko. Fehoko set a school record last season for average yards per catch and figures to be the Cardinal’s deep threat this year. Look for him to get some separation on Saturday against the Ducks’ secondary and hopefully come up with a few big plays. Also, do not count out senior Connor Wedington who can be a matchup nightmare with his speed.
SE: I’m also going to go with Fehoko for my pick. Last season, the junior put on 16 pounds and turned into an absolute monster on the field — leading the team with an insane, school record-breaking 23.6 yards per catch and six touchdowns on the season. I’d liken him to Stanford’s own DK Metcalf, a huge human being who can loom large over defensive backs, but who also has the speed to make the big plays down the field, seen by his yards per catch. In addition, don’t count out senior tight end Tucker Fisk. While not a receiver, Stanford does have a reputation for producing outstanding tight ends, the most recent being 2020 fourth-round pick Colby Parkinson. The new leader atop the depth chart at the position, Fisk will look to follow in the footsteps of Parkinson, Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener and Austin Hooper as the next great tight end to emerge from Stanford.
Stanford struggled to get any pressure on the quarterback in 2019 and will be without Casey Toohill ’19 and Jovan Swann ’20, who finished one-two in sacks. Oregon, however, will be starting a brand new offensive line on Saturday. Which side wins out?
JT: I have to go with the Ducks. Losing junior offensive tackle Penei Sewell, a potential top-five draft pick and 2019 Outland Trophy winner, definitely hurts Oregon, but both sides are going through adjustments in the trenches, and Oregon has more talent and depth to successfully do so — also, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal was an offensive line coach! But again, it’s Game 1, so it could take time for the Ducks’ unit to gel — especially with such limited practice. This is a key battle to watch, and if the Ducks win it, back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Verdell will punish the Cardinal.
EB: Like Jibriel, I am going to give the edge to Oregon’s offensive line. However, it is not a big enough edge that Oregon’s O-line will dominate Stanford’s pass rush. It will be a key battle to watch all game long. I think Stanford’s pass rush will be much improved from last season, but it will take them some time to get going. Oregon has always been known for having a dynamic offense so it is up to Director of Defense Lance Anderson to come up with a way to stop it.
SE: Unlike my colleagues, I’m going to have to go with the Stanford D-line. Yes, the Cardinal lost Swann and Toohill, but Stanford wasn’t particularly great at pressuring the quarterback last year even with those two. Instead, I’m focused on the potential of junior defensive end Thomas Booker, who I think could have a huge season. A team captain this year and a starter the past two years, Booker bulked up this offseason from 287 to a whopping 310. While he only had four sacks last season, he now has two seasons of experience under his belt, and I think he’s going to lead this defensive front to a much better season than they had last year. Whoever is starting for the first time at QB for the Ducks is going to have to deal with pressure from Booker all day.
Contact Ells Boone at eboone24 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jibriel Taha at jtaha ‘at’ stanford.edu.