Stanford football is in free fall. The Cardinal (3-5, 2-4 Pac-12) have lost their last three games — their longest conference losing streak since 2019, when Stanford ended the season 4-8 and without a bowl game.
Now, the Cardinal face Utah (5-3, 4-1 Pac-12), the front-runner for the Pac-12 South title. To make things harder, it’s yet another short week for Stanford, with kickoff set for Friday night at home. It is only the 10th meeting between the programs and the first since Oct. 2018, when Stanford was blown out 40-21.
Noah Maltzman, Drew Silva, Zach Zafran and Ells Boone discuss the injury report, Stanford’s offensive weapons and pros and cons of the Cardinal defense.
Cybele Zhang [CZ]: Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee is questionable. How scared should Cardinal fans be?
Noah Maltzman [NM]: Well, this is not good; Stanford fans should be very scared. Some thought that senior Jack West would be the starter quarterback coming into the season, but watching him play against Kansas State showed that McKee deserved the start over him. Is West starting the worst thing in the world? Absolutely not. But judging from his last performance, where he went 8-12 for 76 yards and two interceptions, McKee being questionable for the Utah game has me worried.
Drew Silva [DS]: Cardinal fans should be scared if McKee is unable to suit up. After watching the two-quarterback experiment in the Kansas State game start the season, it was clear who needed to be under center for Stanford to be as successful as possible. After three consecutive underwhelming performances against Arizona State, Wazzu and Washington, losing McKee would be less than ideal ahead of a matchup with Pac-12 South-leading Utah. However, McKee has not yet been ruled out, so this worrying could be for nothing.
Ells Boone [EB]: Cardinal fans should be terrified if McKee is unable to play on Friday night. With the way Utah is playing and how the Cardinal have fared over their last three games, it would already be a tall task against the Utes, so having to play backup quarterback Jack West would not be ideal. McKee has seriously impressed for Stanford this season, and West has shown in the past that he is just not at the same level as the sophomore signal caller. However, questionable means McKee still has a chance to play, so let’s hold on to that hope.
Zach Zafran [ZZ]: There wasn’t a distinct moment in the Washington game that I recall McKee getting hurt. Cardinal fans should be cautiously optimistic, as I’m led to believe that it’s nothing too serious, and we can expect to see him out there on the field this Friday. However, in the event McKee doesn’t make it off of the injury report, Stanford supporters have every right to be scared. The times the Cardinal have taken the field without McKee under center have not been pretty. The team will have to lean more heavily on the run game, which has been a point of weakness all season.
CZ: Senior WR Michael Wilson is back, but sophomore WR John Humphreys and junior WR Elijah Higgins are both questionable. Who should the quarterback — whoever is put in — target? Additionally, in a now-deleted tweet, Emmitt Smith called the Stanford offense “too predictable” — is he right?
NM: Injuries are not being kind to the Cardinal this week. While Wilson is back, this will be the first playing time he has all season, meaning he is probably rusty. Higgins and Humphreys as questionable does hurt, but hopefully their status is more definite before game time. In terms of who should be targeted, factoring in the injury list, sophomore TE Benjamin Yuroseck could see an increase in targets this game, specifically in the red zone. In addition, passing short to an RB like junior Austin Jones or junior Nathaniel Peat could increase. Head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard could, and frankly should, switch up offensive weapons to confuse the defense, and the list of injuries may give more opportunity for players on the depth chart to show their worth.
ZZ: Wilson’s return is huge for the largely-stagnant offense, but the absence of Humphreys and Higgins would be more devastating than his return can make up for. Without Humphreys and Higgins, Stanford’s next leading wideout from this season would be sophomore Bryce Farrell, who has seven receptions on the entire year. The Cardinal still have a major weapon in sophomore tight end Benjamin Yurosek, who has been a bright spot in the otherwise uninspiring recent weeks, but I don’t believe he alone is enough for the Cardinal offense to shine. As for Smith’s comments: they’re well-merited. For years, a main point of criticism for Shaw has been the play calling and this season is no different. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, with the personnel they’re running with after all of these injuries, it may be too late to shake things up.
DS: Emmitt Smith did not hesitate to criticize a disappointing Cardinal offensive performance against a lackluster Washington defense. However, with a wide receiver corps plagued by injuries, and a running game that hasn’t quite been able to find its stride with the play of the offensive line, it is difficult for David Shaw to diversify the play calling. Following a game in which sophomore RB EJ Smith only had one carry, I’m sure Emmitt Smith would love to see his son receive more touches this week. EJ Smith certainly has the talent to produce, and giving him a bigger role in the offense would not be the worst thing. However, as Zach mentioned, the play calling has been under fire for years now, and it will take more than one adjustment to change this narrative.
EB: It seems like every week now, the cast of receivers changes, and this week is no different. Wilson will be welcomed back with open arms, and while it probably will take time to shake off the rust, he is no doubt the most talented wideout the Cardinal have. Tight end Benjamin Yurosek has emerged into a go-to option in the passing game as well. If Higgins and Humphreys are unable to play, whoever lines up under center will also have to rely on Bryce Farrell and EJ Smith. As for Emmitt Smith’s tweet, he is 100% correct. With a stagnant running game, Stanford has had to rely on the pass much more than they usually do. When David Shaw does elect to run the ball, the offensive set is so easy for the defense to read that it gives the struggling offensive line even less time to protect the Cardinal ball carriers.
CZ: The Cardinal defense gave up only one touchdown last game versus Washington, forcing field goals three times. What has been going right for Stanford defensively, and what can be improved upon this Friday?
NM: Stanford’s passing defense has been underrated and very good this year. They only let up 195 yards per game, thanks in large part to the secondary. Junior CB Kyu Blu Kelly has two interceptions on the year, along with nine passes defended and one forced fumble, leading the team in all three categories. In addition to Kelly, junior ILB Levani Damuni leads the team with 62 tackles and is sixth overall in the Pac-12. In terms of improvement, the defensive line is a sore spot for the Cardinal defense. Having a junior LB leading the team with 3.0 sacks is not ideal. The Cardinal need to find a way to pressure the Utah backfield on Friday, especially since the Utes average 33.4 points per game, which is third in the Pac 12. In sum, in order to beat Utah’s rush-first offense, Stanford needs to apply more pressure to the opposing backfield.
ZZ: Stanford perfectly exhibited the idea of a “bend, don’t break” defense on Saturday — that is, until the final two minutes came. The Cardinal played the pass well and, although they gave up significant yardage on the ground, didn’t let Washington’s rushing attack kill them. Unfortunately, the biggest challenge for the Stanford defense is Stanford’s offense. After coming up with a huge stop with just under four minutes remaining against Washington, a three-and-out possession that only burned 21 seconds of clock forced the defense to return back to the field. Getting a helping hand from the offense by keeping the defense off of the field for as long as possible would help mitigate the number of chances Utah will get and prevent a repeat of what happened late last Saturday night.
DS: Stanford boasts a passing defense that is top three in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per game. Kyu Blu Kelly, as always, will cause havoc for Utah’s quarterback Cameron Rising. However, in order for Stanford to win this game, they must do more than defend in the air; they must stop a powerful Utah run game. Stopping the run has been a struggle all year for the Cardinal, and Stanford will need to step up to halt Utah running back Tavion Thomas, who is coming off a 160 yard, four touchdown performance against UCLA. As Zach mentioned, Stanford’s run defense would benefit greatly from a solid offensive performance. If the Cardinal go down early, and Utah is able to simply run the ball to take time off the clock, this could be a long game. However, if Stanford can get some points on the board and make Utah play from behind, relying on the passing game, Stanford could come out on top.
EB: As the others have said, the pass defense is what has gone right for Stanford so far this season. This week, they will get another boost with the return of junior cornerback Salim Turner-Muhamad and senior cornerback Ethan Bonner. Turner-Muhammad impressed in his five starts a year ago and many thought he would not even play this year due to injury. Bonner has not played since the season opener against Kansas State. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinal coaches work them into the rotation on Friday, since the other guys have done well in their place. Finally, the thing that needs to be improved is, of course, the run defense. The Utes can do some serious damage on the ground; will this be the week Stanford’s defensive line comes to play?
CZ: The last time Stanford beat Utah at home was Nov. 27, 1902. Can the Cardinal defy the odds? Score predictions?
NM: Utah 34, Stanford 20 — This matchup is not favorable for the Cardinal. Having to face a run heavy offense like Utah with a subpar defensive front is not ideal. In addition, the potential loss of offensive leaders like McKee, Higgins and Humphreys is very detrimental. It is doubtful that Stanford will even beat the spread of -7.5 points. It will be hard to pull off a victory, but if watching Friday Night Lights has taught me something, it’s that anything is possible.
DS: Utah 31, Stanford 20 — Stanford heads into Friday night’s game as 7.5 point underdogs, which could be generous considering Stanford’s lengthy injury report. Since the Oregon upset, the Cardinal have not shown much that suggests they will prevail again as underdogs. Following a game in which Stanford allowed Washington to rush for over 100 yards more than their season average, I think that Utah’s run game will prove to be too much for the Cardinal defense to handle, and the injured Stanford offense will struggle to keep up coming off of a short week.
ZZ: Utah 31, Stanford 17 — Utah sits atop the Pac-12 South. Stanford sits at the bottom of the Pac-12 North. Utah is playing some of its best football, coming off of a 44-24 win over UCLA. Stanford is riding a three-game losing streak and has looked far from impressive. This is Utah’s game to lose, and few expect the Cardinal to come close on Friday (oddsmakers have Utah -7.5). However, Stanford has a knack for ruining other teams’ championship aspirations. We’ve seen it in the past, and we saw it just four weeks ago when they took down No. 3 Oregon. Utah faces a Cardinal team that is hindered by injuries, running with zero momentum and struggling historically for a David Shaw-era team. I fully expect the Utes to leave Stanford Stadium with a win, but it goes without saying that you can never count out a Stanford upset.
EB: Utah 35, Stanford 14 — This scoreline is predicated on the fact that McKee is questionable for the game and may not play. If he is unable to go, I think things could get ugly at Stanford Stadium. If he can play, however, I think the Cardinal’s offense could keep pace with the Utes’s. Utah’s rushing attack scares me, especially with how Stanford has been defending the run this year. At the end of the day, the current three-game losing streak does not inspire much confidence against the Pac-12 South leaders, but you never know: the return of captain Michael Wilson may spark the team to an upset.