By King Jemison
Stanford’s long and trying offseason had already cost the Cardinal its top two NFL Draft prospects in senior offensive tackle Walker Little and senior cornerback Paulson Adebo. Even after those departures, Nerd Nation had reason to feel cautiously optimistic about the opener at No. 12 Oregon. But the final hours of the extended offseason dealt one last blow to the Cardinal when it was announced that senior quarterback Davis Mills, along with senior wide receiver Connor Wedington and junior defensive end Trey LaBounty, would miss the game due to COVID-19 protocols.
Stanford’s upset chances in Eugene plummeted with that last-minute news. Minus their star quarterback, the Cardinal fought off a blowout but fell 35-14 in the 2020 opener. Stanford has now lost five straight games dating back to last season, the program’s worst streak since 2006. The Cardinal have not won a game since Oct. 26, 2019. Now, Stanford returns home to face a dangerous Colorado squad buoyed by a 48-42 win over UCLA in head coach Karl Dorrell’s first game.
To use one of the most ambiguous cliches in sports, Saturday’s game at Oregon was closer than the score indicated. Though Oregon outgained Stanford 496-413, Stanford averaged 7.2 yards per play to Oregon’s 7.5. The Cardinal offense moved the ball throughout the game, punting just twice, but was doomed by poor third-down efficiency (4/13) and four missed field goals from fifth year kicker Jet Toner.
The picture of Stanford’s defense after Game One is far less rosy. The Cardinal only forced one punt and allowed Oregon to reach the end zone on four of its final five drives. Most troublingly, Oregon rushed for 269 yards at 6.7 yards per attempt and converted nine of 11 third downs. Even Mills’ laser arm likely could not have led Stanford to a win when the Cardinal defense could not get stops.
Considering they jumped out to a 35-7 lead over UCLA with over five minutes remaining in the first half, Colorado can clearly score points, too. With Stanford’s obvious defensive limitations, this game will likely involve lots of points. The Cardinal must be prolific offensively. That raises the biggest question going into this week’s game: If Mills is unavailable again this week, should Stanford roll with junior QB Jack West or freshman QB Tanner McKee?
Both quarterbacks showed promise in the opener. West got the start and finished 13/19 for 154 yards. He missed on a few big plays downfield that could have swung the game, but West’s second start was dramatically better than his first (last year vs. UCLA, where he finished 15/32 for 143 yards and was sacked seven times). West captained both of Stanford’s touchdown marches. Meanwhile, McKee saw action in two drives in his first college game. The former Top 50 recruit showed off his talented arm, throwing for 62 yards on 3/7 passing, including a 46-yard strike to junior wide receiver Simi Fehoko.
McKee’s tantalizing talent makes him the more exciting option. That does not necessarily make him the more prudent option for the Colorado game. After two full seasons in the system, West likely has better command of the complicated Cardinal offense. That experience is why he got the start in Mills’ sudden absence on Saturday. West’s improved accuracy and poise against a loaded Oregon defense bodes well for his potential against a much friendlier Colorado defense. And as the Keys will discuss later, Stanford wants to win this game on the ground. The reps West has accumulated, in practice or on Zoom, allows him to make better decisions at the line-of-scrimmage.
Unlike last week’s game, Stanford does not need an elite quarterback performance to beat the Buffaloes. The Cardinal need a stabilizing force under center who hands the ball off and hits a few deep throws. West can give head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard just that. However, if the Cardinal fall behind and need a comeback through the air, they should turn to McKee. Regardless, if Mills is indeed out, both quarterbacks will likely get multiple drives.
In this shortened season, each game literally means more. The Pac-12 recently announced that teams must still reach .500 or above to make a bowl game. That means Stanford must go at least 3-3 in the six-game regular season to avoid missing a bowl game for a second straight season. Colorado at home is presumably one of the easier games on the schedule. But like everything in 2020, it still will not be easy. Here’s three keys to wrangling the Buffaloes and securing Stanford’s first win of 2020:
1) Let the big boys eat
With or without Mills, Stanford does not want this game to come down to quarterback play. Stanford wants to win this game Intellectual Brutality-era style — with its beefy offensive line.
The Cardinal offensive line was the brightest ray of sunshine on a dreary Eugene evening. The Tunnel Workers Union blasted through the vaunted Oregon front seven to the tune of 197 yards rushing on Saturday. Sophomore running backs Austin Jones (100 yards and two TDs) and Nathaniel Peat (97 yards on just six carries) showed tremendous burst and explosiveness, but in a rare sight over the past few seasons of Stanford football, they often advanced multiple yards downfield before an Oregon defender could touch them. Perhaps even more impressively, Stanford’s offensive line did not allow a single sack against one of the best defensive lines in the country. Now, this revamped unit faces an easier test on Saturday.
Colorado’s defense forced four turnovers in the win over UCLA, but the Bruins were still able to move the ball on the ground against the Buffs. UCLA amassed 175 yards rushing on 7.0 yards per carry. Thanks to turnovers, the Bruins fell behind early and had to play catch-up through the air. If not, they likely could have won the game by running the ball.
Stanford must avoid those turnover woes and jump out to an early lead so that it can rely on the run. From there, the Cardinal should set its nasty offensive line loose to bulldoze the Buffaloes back to Boulder.
2) Make Sam Noyer a safety again
Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer spent most of last season as a safety to avoid being buried in the crowded Colorado QB depth chart. He looked anything like a safety in his first start last Saturday. Noyer threw for 257 yards and a touchdown and ran for 64 yards plus another score. He provided a much-needed lift to a Colorado offense that was expected to reside near the bottom of the Pac-12 this season.
Colorado put up 525 yards of offense in Karl Dorrell’s debut, and Noyer looked like one of the best signal-callers in the conference. Now, Noyer faces a Stanford defense that made Oregon QB Tyler Shough seem like a veteran in his first start — Shough had 312 yards of total offense in the Ducks win. Like Shough, Noyer is a dangerous runner who can extend plays with his feet. Stanford’s pass rush could not muster a single sack of Shough, and though the Colorado offensive line is not as intimidating as Oregon’s, the Cardinal front seven must get Noyer on the ground quickly to avoid the crippling third-down conversions that Shough repeatedly delivered.
There is a reason why Noyer moved to safety last season, and the Cardinal need to remind him. Stanford’s front seven must keep Noyer in the pocket and force him to win downfield.
3) Cash those checks
Red zone efficiency was a major issue for Stanford last season. It was perhaps an even bigger issue last Saturday. The Cardinal converted on two of four red zone opportunities — both Jones rushing TDs — but that stat does not tell the whole story. The Cardinal crossed the 50-yard line eight times and only scored twice. Missing four field goals made it a nightmare return for Toner coming off an ACL tear, but Stanford’s 4-13 fiasco on third down compelled Toner to attempt those field goals in the first place.
The Cardinal forced the end zone fade at the expense of its successful rushing attack in the red zone, and Stanford’s passing attack could not get completions in the compressed windows near the goal line. Shaw and Pritchard should rely on the run game whenever possible in the red zone to get into third-and-short opportunities with the whole playbook available. But regardless of the playcalling, Stanford must execute better in the red zone.
Stanford’s dominant offensive line and talented skill position players wrote plenty of checks for the Cardinal on Saturday that they just could not cash in the red zone. The Buffaloes’ Bank will be open on Saturday afternoon. The Cardinal just need to waltz in and cash those checks this time in what will likely be a high-scoring affair.
Stanford is the better team. If the Cardinal can convert in the red zone against Colorado, they can pick up their first win in over a year — and finally, erase the stain from last year’s disastrous season.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.