Stanford hasn’t won a football game in over a month. Last week, the frustration began to show.
Rested after a bye week and at home with a chance to get back to .500 and keep pace in the race for bowl eligibility, Stanford put up just 13 points and let one of the worst offenses in the Pac-12 score a game-winning touchdown.
“I’ve got a locker room full of guys that are not happy right now,” head coach David Shaw said after the loss to Washington. “And they shouldn’t be.”
There are no more gimmes on the home stretch of the Cardinal schedule, least of all Pac-12 South frontrunner Utah (5-3, 4-1 Pac-12). Stanford (3-5, 2-4 Pac-12) hosts the Utes on Friday night in the Cardinal’s second short week of the season with even modest postseason hopes on the line.
The math is simple. To get to a bowl game for the first time since 2018 (Stanford was eligible in 2020 but opted out at the end of a gruelling pandemic season), the Cardinal must win three of their four remaining games. They’ll need to find a way against a Utah team that looks set to challenge Oregon for the conference crown.
And they might have to do it without Tanner McKee.
The sophomore quarterback’s availability is the biggest question mark for the Cardinal after Shaw announced Tuesday that McKee was questionable for Friday’s game for undisclosed reasons.
There isn’t a more important player on the roster. Stanford has lived and died by the success of its passing game, and no other quarterback has shown he can run it as well as McKee.
If McKee is out, it’ll be up to backups senior Jack West and sixth-year Isaiah Sanders to lead the Cardinal under center. West has started three games for Stanford — all losses — without much success, and Sanders has so far only been featured as a rusher in a wildcat package in short yardage situations. Shaw said that both would play if McKee is unavailable, but it’s unclear whether Sanders will take on an increased role in the offense as a result.
“I trust coach’s game plan,” Sanders said on Wednesday. “Whether it’s Tanner, whether it’s Jack, whether it’s me, we’ll be ready to go.”
Unpredictability may be the biggest asset Stanford’s passing game has on Friday. Besides McKee, starting wide receivers junior Elijiah Higgins and sophomore John Humphreys are also questionable, though Stanford will get a boost with the return of senior wideout and team captain Michael Wilson after a long recovery from foot surgery.
A much more known quantity for the Cardinal that Utah will be eyeing is Stanford’s dismal performance on the ground, on both sides of the ball. Utah buried UCLA with 290 rushing yards last week and could very well replicate that against Stanford’s league-worst rushing defense. The Utes are unlikely to respect Stanford’s run game after the Cardinal was stonewalled by Washington, the league’s second-worst rushing defense. Both are clearly points of frustration for Stanford at this point in the season.
“I don’t have an answer for you,” Shaw said last week when asked about his team’s porous rush defense. “If I knew, I would have fixed it by now.”
Stanford at least gets reinforcements in the secondary with the probable return of senior cornerback Ethan Bonner, who has been out since Stanford’s opener against Kansas State, and junior cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad, who has yet to play this season. They’ll test Utah quarterback Cam Rising, whose ascent after ousting Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer has fuelled Utah’s emergence in a crowded Pac-12 South division.
“He’s become a playmaker,” Shaw said of Rising. “That’s really been the story of this season for Utah, [for] everybody, on both sides of the ball. Whatever it takes to win the game, they’ve been able to do it.”
That is high praise and well-deserved for a program that has risen to the top of the Pac-12 after overcoming unthinkable tragedy in the deaths of players Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan in the past nine months. Stanford will face a confident and motivated team on Friday with everything to play for. It’s up to the Cardinal to put their struggles behind them and match up.
Stanford kicks off against Utah at 7:30 p.m. PT on Friday. The game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.
Per the attendance policies of Stanford Athletics, spectators at Stanford Stadium will be required to present either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the game.