By Jacob Neidig
This Saturday, the Cardinal (0-1, 0-0 Pac 12) head to the LA Coliseum to seek their first win of the season. It will also be the first career start for sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee.
This edition of the heated Stanford-USC rivalry will be the 100th of the series between the schools — the only two private institutions in the Pac-12. The meeting with the No. 14 Trojans (1-0, 0-0 Pac 12) will be the first between the schools since 2019; last season’s game was disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an abbreviated conference-only schedule.
The Cardinal enter the game searching for answers after falling 24-7 to Kansas State last weekend. The Stanford offense was unable to score against the Wildcats until late in the fourth quarter, an alarming sign for anyone with high hopes for the year.
While the end result of last week’s games for each squad might not look similar on paper (that is, USC beat San Jose State), there is still hope that the Cardinal can upset the Trojans during this week’s edition of Pac-12 After Dark. Although USC ended up winning last weekend by a comfortable score of 30-7, the Trojans played quite sloppily against a less-than-stellar Spartans team. In fact, heading into the fourth quarter, USC was up only six points, 13-7. The Trojans were able to turn up the heat in the fourth quarter, however, and showcased why they’re currently favored. But if Southern California comes out sleepy this week, there’s potential for a sneaky upset in Los Angeles.
For the Cardinal to pull off the upset, Stanford needs to come ready to play from the opening whistle. While there were undoubtedly nerves for the first game of the season last week, a sloppy first half will be much more difficult to overcome in front of the raucous crowd that is expected at the game on Saturday.
A Cardinal victory is going to require a strong performance from McKee, who was named the sole starter this week after splitting snaps with senior quarterback Jack West last weekend in Dallas. McKee’s physical attributes, arm strength and high school performance have many Cardinal hopeful that he will be the key in restoring Stanford to its previous glory. The sophomore will be heading home for his first start — his hometown, Corona, is just 50 miles from USC.
Starting McKee should allow offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard to unlock the playbook and open up the offense — one that includes a stable of running backs that have proven they can lead the Cardinal to victory.
Junior running back Austin Jones rushed for over 500 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and he is poised to build on that campaign. He is also joined in the backfield by junior Nathaniel Peat and sophomore E.J. Smith — both possess the skills necessary to be a threat when called upon. Establishing the run game early will be critical to Cardinal’s success, as head coach David Shaw noted repeatedly in press conferences this week.
On defense, the Cardinal will face a potent attack from veteran USC quarterback Kedon Slovis. The junior, who first started for the Trojans against Stanford two years ago, has repeatedly shown his ability to spread the wealth both nationally and against the Cardinal. In the teams’ matchup two seasons ago, he threw for 377 yards while completing nearly 86% of his passes.
The Cardinal defense, particularly the linebacker group, should be coming out with a lot of energy and emotion on Saturday. Senior inside linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar is expected to start for the first time this season after missing last week’s game with an injury.
“The whole (linebacker) group is excited to get him back,” fellow senior inside linebacker Ricky Miezan said.
Not only will getting Mangum-Farrar help the defense, but will also provide an emotional boost for the Cardinal. Both Mangum-Farrar and Miezan were injured against USC two seasons ago — they will be treating the game as “a little bit of a redemption tour,” according to Miezan.
Another key player on the defense is junior corner Kyu Blu Kelly. Kelly’s interception last weekend was the sole turnover forced by the defense — more of those plays will be necessary if the Cardinal hope to earn the victory.
The game against the Trojans presents the Cardinal with an opportunity to move past last week’s loss and start the McKee-era with a momentum-building win. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. PT on Saturday in Los Angeles.