Football Roundtable: SEC showdown in Tennessee

Sept. 15, 2021, 7:31 p.m.

Last week, Stanford had its way. The run game was rolling on all cylinders, the O-line held strong, sophomore Tanner McKee cemented his spot as starter and the defense held USC to a mere 28 points (and just 10 in the first half).

Now, the Cardinal (1-1, 1-0 Pac-12) look to Vanderbilt (1-1, 0-0 SEC). Although the teams’ records are the same on paper, the Commodores were abominable Week 1, unable to put up a touchdown versus East Tennessee State, and Week 2 only barely squeaked out a win against winless Colorado State. 

Can Stanford keep its momentum going? The Daily’s Jibriel Taha, Daniel Wu and Michael Espinosa delve into special teams, hidden gems and the season at-large.

Cybele Zhang [CZ]: Few predicted last week’s win in the Coliseum—aside from Dan Wu, that is. How does the upset change your outlook on Stanford’s season overall? Can we win the North? The Pac-12? Should we set our sights even higher?

Jibriel Taha [JT]: It changes the outlook significantly. After Stanford’s dud to open the season, the path to bowl eligibility closed drastically given the way the Cardinal played, as they still were set to face six-ranked teams. That path swung back open just as quickly as it appeared to close last weekend, however, as Stanford demonstrated its true potential—which we had all hoped to see Week 1. The type of performance we saw against USC would certainly pose a threat against Oregon for the North title. With the rest of the division struggling, highlighted by Washington’s 0-2 start (the team originally picked to finish second in the North), Stanford has emerged early on above the other four teams in the North not named Oregon. The Ducks remain the clear favorite to win the division after their convincing win in Columbus, despite missing superstar sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Daniel Wu [DW]: Thanks for reminding everyone! Let the record show I always believed. Stanford always had the talent—if not the proven experience—to put on a show like it did in the Coliseum, and it was electrifying to finally see the pieces come together. The Cardinal shut down one of the best receivers in the conference, ripped off chunk plays on the ground and found a QB1 who played a spotless game in his first career start. Knowing that this Stanford can show up on any given Saturday definitely changes the prospects for the season. Somehow, the road to the Pac-12 championship runs through Palo Alto this year: UCLA, Oregon and Utah all need to face Stanford at home. Beneath Oregon, the Pac-12 North looks wide open. If Stanford can sustain the level of play they showed in LA, one or two timely upsets at home could put them right at the top of the conference. But that’s far from a given. I’m not sure Stanford can play like they did at USC every week, and UCLA and Oregon look like they’re a class above the rest of the competition right now. Regardless, we’ve seen a glimpse of the Cardinal’s ceiling, and it’s high enough to get excited.

Michael Espinosa [ME]: I want to formally apologize to Stanford football for not believing, but I feel like we should get a pass for not believing in the Cardinal since we weren’t old enough to witness when an unranked Stanford upset No. 2 USC (who was ranked first on the coaches poll) in 2007. Can we win the North? My first thought is, “Ehhh, probably not,” but I won’t rule the team out completely for the sake of making the same mistake twice. Boy is that Oregon match going to be good. I absolutely cannot wait to be at Stanford Stadium again.

CZ: Last week, USC’s kicker got ejected for targeting on the opening kickoff. Later, sophomore Josh Karty missed a 49-yard field-goal attempt. Meanwhile in Colorado, Commodores’ graduate transfer Joseph Bulovas put away a 38-yard field goal to win Vanderbilt’s game with only 19 seconds remaining. That is to say, special teams are important. What are your thoughts on this position group for the Cardinal? Might we see a Big Game block-esque play this season? Will someone take a punt to the house? 

JT: Stanford special teams have consistently been stellar for the Cardinal under coordinator Pete Alamar, who is now in his tenth season with the program. We haven’t had much to say about special teams so far this year, and that’s a good thing; when this phase of the game becomes a major focus, it is usually for bad reasons. Karty, the No. 1 kicker in his recruiting class, has been solid to start the season, with six of his seven kickoffs resulting in touchbacks against USC, where he also went 6-for-6 on extra points.

DW: This is sadly a much less exciting special teams matchup now that Sarah Fuller isn’t kicking for Vanderbilt. For the Cardinal, it’s worth noting that over the past few seasons Alamar has had to replace arguably one of the best kicker/punter duos in Stanford history in Jet Toner ‘20 and Jake Bailey ‘19.So far, it looks like Alamar hasn’t missed a beat. Karty has a cannon for a leg (go back and watch his 49-yard attempt at USC—he misses but his kick hits the top of the upright, which is absurd) and junior punter Ryan Sanborn is improving after a trial by fire his freshman year where he punted and placekicked for an injured Toner. There’s only one part of Stanford’s special teams play that I think is lacking: would it be too much to ask for a fake punt at least once a season? 

CZ: I have little to complain about from last week’s performance, so let’s focus on some positives. Who do you think is the most underrated player on the Cardinal team and why? Who deserves more positive press?

JT: I’m going to go with junior running back Nathaniel Peat. We saw his potential to create explosive plays last year, coming so close a couple times to taking one to the endzone, and he still managed to record an impressive seven yards-per-attempt on the ground. Last weekend, he finally broke the end zone with his 87-yard touchdown run to open scoring. He got his total yardage up to 115 on the night over five other rushing attempts. Also a contributor on special teams, Peat picked up 58 yards over his two kickoff returns on Saturday night. 

DW: Shoutout to sophomore wide receiver John Humphreys, who was absolutely bullying Trojan DBs after the catch with his size and athleticism on Saturday. The Cardinal wide receiver room was bursting at the seams with talent last season, and it’s exciting to finally see high profile recruits like Humphreys and junior Elijah Higgins make their mark on Stanford’s passing game. Keep an eye on them this season.Next year, once McKee and Humphreys have a full year as starters under their belts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an air attack to rival the K.J. Costello ‘20-J.J. Arcega-Whiteside ‘19 bombardment of 2018. On defense, defensive back Jimmy Wyrick was the next man up for an injury-riddled secondary and put on an incredible performance for a true freshman, scoring a pass breakup and landing among PFF’s highest-graded Pac-12 safeties for the week. With seniorjunior cornerback Ethan Bonner still banged up and likely out for this week, the younger Cardinal DBs will have to step up again.

ME: As the resident Isaiah Sanders fan, you already know my answer is with the sixth-year quarterback. I said he needed to be used near the goal line, and that’s exactly what David Shaw did. His first run was a three yard gain from the USC four-yard line which set up a rushing touchdown from McKee on the next play, while his second netted the Air Force transfer his first touchdown on the season. 

CZ: Vanderbilt are only 12 point underdogs. Are the people in Vegas underestimating the Cardinal? What are your score predictions?

JT: Stanford 34, Vanderbilt 13 — This is the third and final game of the road trip for Stanford, the following two weeks feature top-15 opposition, and Vanderbilt just broke an 11-game losing streak. Seems like a trap game, doesn’t it? But, there is a large talent gap between these two programs, with Vanderbilt in Year 1 of a complete rebuild under a new head coach. This Stanford team was up 42-13 with under 10 minutes to go in the Coliseum. The Cardinal will have their way with Vanderbilt. 

DW: Stanford 35, Vanderbilt 21 — Either Vegas doesn’t pay attention to Stanford at all (likely) or they’re such astute observers of the program (unlikely) that they know the Cardinal usually plays worse when forced to fly across the country. The mileage might lead to one or two mistakes that leak a big play or a turnover for the Commodores, but Stanford has the offense to keep up. It won’t be enough to derail a comfortable win. 

ME: Stanford 32, Vanderbilt 20 — Jibriel is right, this does seem like a trap game, which is why I’m more or less following the implied point total Vegas has. In reality, I think Stanford will probably cover the spread, even if the line moves a couple of points, I’m just too scared to put it to paper.

Cybele Zhang '22 J.D. '26 is a Senior Staff Writer from Los Angeles. As an undergraduate, she double majored in English Literature with Honors and German Studies and served as Sports Editor — Vol. 255, 257 and 258.Jibriel Taha is a senior staff writer for the sports section. He is from Los Angeles and studies economics. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ Wu '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for News and Staff Writer for Sports. Contact him at dwu21 'at' stanford.eduMichael Espinosa '22 is majoring in international relations. He's the head of The Daily's social media team, and editor for the University beat and also occasionally writes for sports, arts, and The Grind. He's the biggest Taylor Swift fan at Stanford and the proudest New Yorker you will ever meet. Contact him at mespinosa 'at'

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