Don’t you just love this time of year? Summer turns to fall, and with that it’s time to fire up the grill, fill up the coolers and get ready for another year of Stanford football as the Cardinal return to action this Saturday at Stanford Stadium vs. Colgate, an FCS opponent.
The 2022 vintage of Stanford football (0-0, 0-0 Pac-12) enters the season as a bit of an enigma in the Pac-12. This is a Stanford team with a number of serious talents. At quarterback, sophomore Tanner McKee is the guy. Pro Football Focus projects McKee as a first round pick, and it isn’t hard to see why. McKee simply makes NFL-caliber throws –– he’ll drop the ball in the slight window between a linebacker and a safety to junior tight end Ben Yurosek or put the ball where only his man can make a play down the sideline –– and can go through progressions and execute pre-snap in head coach David Shaw’s pro-style offense. Elsewhere, the aforementioned Yurosek is as good a receiving tight end as you’ll find in college football. The wide receiver room, which returns fifth year Michael Wilson, fifth year Brycen Tremayne, senior Elijah Higgins and junior John Humphreys, might be the strongest group at that position in the Shaw era. On the other side of the ball, the secondary is among the strongest in the Pac-12. Senior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly is an NFL-caliber defensive back and the gem of the defense –– just watch his tape from last September’s USC game against Trojan wide receiver Drake London, who was selected No. 8 overall in April’s NFL Draft.
However, despite this topline talent, analysts have already written the Cardinal off and, frankly, they have a point after last season’s struggles.
A brief recap of last year: Early promise saw the Cardinal notch memorable wins against USC and then-No. 3 Oregon, but the season then dovetailed with seven defeats, each a different flavor of demoralizing. At times it felt like Murphy’s law in action with four quarterbacks starting a game and a litany of injuries killing any sort of momentum week-to-week. The last month of the season in particular was brutal. Those four games saw the Cardinal outscored 173-46. Against Oregon State, Stanford found the endzone down 21-0 — the tightest score at the time of a Stanford touchdown over that stretch!
Thankfully, the new season presents an opportunity to turn the page, and this is a Cardinal squad that has the talent to play at a much higher level. Within the program, the expectations have not changed even as performances have slipped the last few years. The Pac-12 is wide open this season, and Stanford coaches and players aspire to be in Pasadena come January.
That’s all well and good, but can Stanford get back to its physical roots? Really, that’s the season-defining question.
If the Cardinal is to seriously contend for conference championships, it must win in the trenches. Last year, the story was simple: offensively, Stanford wasn’t able to get enough of a push to run the ball, and defensively, they couldn’t stop it. If you can’t get these basics right, David Shaw’s system falls apart — no matter the talent in other areas.
As such, the entire season hinges on the line play. If we see improvement on both sides, Stanford will be competitive towards the top of the Pac-12. If we don’t… well, given the tough even-year road slate, 3-9 is a possibility, even with the talent.
This week’s Colgate game won’t answer any of these glaring questions. Stanford will trounce the visiting Raiders, an uncompetitive FCS program out of the Patriot League who was blown out by Brown and Cornell last year. That said, bowl eligibility feels like the realistic goal for this season, and pragmatically a free win is helpful after last year’s Power 5-only schedule (well, you could maybe put an asterisk on Vandy). But hey, it’s the first game of the season, so let’s get excited. It’s time to find the one place in town that carries the Pac-12 Network, gather round, and buckle up for a new year of Stanford football! Here’s what to keep your eye on this week.
Last year, Stanford ranked 126th in the FBS at running the football, averaging under 87 yards per game and just 3.21 yards per carry. Only four teams ran worse than the Cardinal –– a simply staggering stat given Stanford’s ground dominance under David Shaw. Time and time again, Stanford would find themselves in 2nd and 9 or 10 after an unproductive first down carry, forcing Stanford to play catch up on offense all year.
The underperformance of the offensive line is frankly puzzling. Last year’s starting five came into the season with a mix of experience and elite recruiting pedigree, but for whatever reason, the line couldn’t open holes for a stable of talented backs. The success of the offense this year hinges on an improved performance, and fans should be cautiously optimistic as everybody is back with one more year of experience, coaching and strength training. Senior tackle Walter Rouse and junior guard Jake Hornibrook have been offseason standouts and senior guard Branson Bragg could play on Sundays. The unit won’t be tested by Colgate, but I am excited to see them against USC next week.
Just as the offensive line couldn’t create a rushing attack last year, the defensive line couldn’t stop opponent running backs. Cardinal opponents ran for 235 yards per game against Stanford; only Akron, Arkansas State and Kansas were worse.
This year, the unit is entirely changed. No returning starters means junior Tobin Phillips and sophomore Anthony Franklin are poised to feature heavily, while defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has shuffled his scheme. Expect to see less of the 3-4 base defense of prior years, in favor of 4-man fronts that feature only two true defensive linemen with two “edge” players –– a new position for Stanford that is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, skewing to the latter given the Cardinal’s personnel.
We saw Stanford shift to this new alignment some versus Oregon State last year, and it helped Stanford put up a relatively-okay performance against a good rushing team. Hopefully, it will scale up to a more productive unit, since as things stand, the D-line may be the Cardinal’s Achilles heel. It doesn’t matter how good your secondary is if Stanford, like last year, allows nearly six yards per carry.
Let’s be real. Colgate is a game with zero upside for Stanford. We’re going to learn nothing about the lines in a game against an undersized, uncompetitive FCS program. The expectation is Stanford wins by 30-plus points. That said, there is real downside, particularly if a key player goes down.
Looking at the depth chart, I am particularly nervous about the running back and offensive line depth. After last year’s featured running backs transferred out, junior EJ Smith is poised to start. But, he spent parts of last season banged up and hasn’t faced the volume of carries –– and thereby hits — that he will this year. Second up is junior Casey Filkins, who has also struggled with injuries. Beyond those two, the running back RB room is highly inexperienced. On the O-line, there’s a major drop off in experience after the sixth man –– Stanford was generally lucky to stay healthy here last year and will be hoping for similar fortune this time around.
This is a big season for Stanford, which needs to bounce back strong from last time out. In spite of the way last year ended, it’s impossible not to get excited about the prospect of more memorable moments like Elijah Higgins’s TD reception on an untimed down to send Stanford into overtime –– and an eventual field-storming victory against the No. 3 team in the country. Who knows what the season will bring, so why not get carried away? Are those Roses I’m smelling?
Maybe Famous Idaho Potatoes.
Pablo’s Picks of the Week:
- Stanford 48, Colgate 10
- Season Record: 7-6
- Game I’ll be Watching: Oregon v. Georgia
- Upset of the Week: UC Davis over Cal
Pablo will be in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM.