View from the Booth: Stanford looks to play spoiler in Eugene

Sept. 29, 2022, 6:25 p.m.

Last week’s game in Seattle was ugly for Stanford football (1-2, 0-2 Pac-12). Up in Seattle against then-No. 18 Washington, the Cardinal started slow and never truly put it together in any of the three phases of play, with the Huskies handedly triumphing 40-22. The road for Stanford does not get any easier this week, with a third successive top-20 matchup to open Pac-12 play as the Cardinal head back to the Pacific Northwest to take on No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) at Autzen Stadium on Saturday at 8 p.m. 

A lot went wrong in Seattle. A hodgepodge offensive line – undermanned following senior Branson Bragg retiring over the bye week, junior Myles Hinton missing through injury and senior Walter Rouse getting banged up in the first half – could not protect junior quarterback Tanner McKee. The turnover bug bit again. A dynamic Washington offense gave Stanford’s work-in-progress defense problems both through the air and on the ground. To win, Stanford needed to turn the game into a shootout and get key defensive stops, but unfortunately, neither pillar panned out for the Cardinal. 

The game plan does not change much up at Oregon this week. The Ducks, after getting embarrassed by Georgia in their first game, exhibit a dynamic offense that has put up 70, 41 and 44 points over the last three weeks. Auburn-transfer quarterback Bo Nix boasts a strong arm and a stable of talented receivers, and Oregon’s run game will be a very difficult test for Stanford’s undersized front. Led by two interior linemen named preseason first-team all-conference, Oregon averages over five yards per carry on the season. Indeed, against then-No. 12 BYU – a team known for its physicality – Oregon ran for nearly 5.5 yards per carry and three touchdowns (omitting a fumble Oregon recovered, scored as a 22 yard negative run play).

While the Ducks offense is dangerous, their defense is as talented as any in the Pac-12. New Oregon head coach Dan Lanning joined from Georgia, where as defensive coordinator his unit held opponents to under 11 points per game en route to a national championship. All-American linebacker Noah Sewell is the star attraction, and Stanford can expect to see a lot of pressure from a loaded Oregon front seven. 

Needless to say, Stanford is in for a tough outing Saturday night. Some perspective here is useful: this game will not by any means define the season. Regardless of the score at Autzen, Stanford’s path to bowl eligibility remains clear and centered around upcoming home games. That said, last week’s Washington game certainly puts a damper on Stanford’s chances to compete with the top of the Pac-12. 

This game marks the one-year anniversary of Stanford’s upset of then-No. 3 Oregon on The Farm last year. Since then, the Cardinal are winless in nine tries versus Power Five opposition, and ending that slump is sure to be top of mind for all headed to Eugene. Nonetheless, that game itself serves as a sharp reminder that everything goes out the window when Stanford and Oregon meet. These two teams have a knack for ruining each other’s seasons, and Stanford is exactly 5-5 against ranked Oregon squads since 2009. Here are a few keys to keep in mind if Stanford is to derail the Ducks again in 2022. 

  1. Protect Tanner McKee

Tanner McKee was sacked eight times last week. Yes, the line was banged up – for much of the first half, Stanford only had two of the five preseason projected starters. And yes, sacks are (in part) a quarterback stat, and Tanner McKee needs to improve his pocket presence. But Washington rushers routinely beat Stanford blockers: you simply cannot beat top teams on the road without better line play. 

Before the 78-yard connection with fifth-year wide receiver Michael Wilson added something to the statline deep in garbage time, McKee was sacked on eight of 33 dropbacks, and after netting out sack yardage, the passing attack had yet to crack 200 yards. The press box at Husky Stadium quite literally shook before obvious passing downs for Stanford. Washington fans expected their team to get to McKee, and time and time again the hosts did. 

Schematically, though, there was so much buzz going into last week about the slow mesh offense that looked so promising against USC. We talked about it in this column. Crucially, though, the slow mesh is predicated on decent protection. By definition, the play requires time for the quarterback to read the defense. Stanford’s blockers were unable to produce such time for their quarterback against Washington, and hence the slow mesh was easily neutralized by Washington early on last Saturday in Seattle. 

  1. Get Ben Yurosek going

For much of last season, Ben Yurosek shined as a consistent performer while other talented Cardinal receivers battled injuries on a weekly basis. This year, the junior tight end is yet to reach the levels of those performances. Through three games, Yurosek is seventh on the team with just 62 yards on seven receptions, and his Pro Football Focus grade sits near the bottom of Stanford’s offense. 

Yurosek represents Stanford’s most consistent, true vertical threat over the middle, as we saw time and time again last year, but Stanford has not gotten that element of the offense going this year. Indeed, the McKee-to-Yurosek downfield throw that comes to mind this year is the interception on the first possession of the USC game. 

Yurosek has the talent as a receiving tight end to play on Sundays, and though his game needs work as a blocker – we saw Washington edge players really take advantage of Yurosek in their pass rush on Saturday – getting one of the more dynamic weapons on its offense some momentum in 2022 could go a long way for the Cardinal. 

  1. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers

After just three games, Stanford has coughed the ball up 11 times, while only producing one takeaway. That -10 differential is the worst in FBS, despite Stanford’s abnormally early bye week. For perspective, the next worst margin in the Pac-12 is -2. Moreover, three turnovers have cost the Cardinal points in the red zone in just the last two games. 

Now, we are still early in the season, and turnovers are a highly variable statistic (McKee’s interception versus Washington is a good example of an especially fluky, yet costly, pick). Stanford should regress to something more normal at some point. Nevertheless, turnovers are often a function of pressure, and at the moment, Stanford is not putting opponent quarterbacks consistently under duress to force bad decisions. 

Even if Stanford struggles to force takeaways, the offense must be cleaner with the football to have any hope against Oregon. Given the high-octane Oregon offense and known weaknesses to Stanford’s defense, Saturday’s game is all about producing enough stops to stay competitive. Stanford simply cannot dig a deeper hole for itself, gifting the Ducks the ball as it did versus USC and Washington. 

Pablo’s Picks of the Week:

  • Oregon 49, Stanford 21
  • Game I’ll be watching: No. 15 Washington @ UCLA (Friday night)
  • Upset of the week: Iowa at home over No. 4 Michigan

Pablo will be in the booth Saturday to call the game on KZSU

Pablo is a columnist for the sports section. You can also find him in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM. You can contact Pablo at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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