Upset in Utah: Can the Card swing it?

Nov. 10, 2022, 10:30 p.m.

Stanford football (3-6, 1-6 Pac-12) is on the road this weekend to play No. 13 Utah (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12) in a nighttime match.

This is Stanford’s last chance at bowl eligibility. They need to win their remaining three games to be bowl-eligible by the end of the season, so victory against a ranked Utah team is necessary.

The Cardinal enter this match after a disastrous loss to Washington State. Four starters on the defense became injured during an early touchdown drive by the Cougars: fifth-year safeties Patrick Fields and Kendall Williamson, fifth-year linebacker Ricky Miezan and senior linebacker Levani Damuni. This “next man up” mindset is being stretched to its limits, as blows to the starting lineup have contested it every game this season.

The match was a comeback opportunity for the Cardinal, but ultimately became one of their worst performances of the season. The defense struggled to keep the Washington State offense out of the endzone, giving Washington State an early 42-3 lead in the first half that was met with a near doubling of points in the second half: 52-14. The offense had its first game without a field goal in weeks, but the lack of touchdowns and 4-0 turnover deficit made it impossible for them to clinch the victory. Overall, the team had one of its worst performances of the season.

Morale is thinning as the season is not turning out to be what Stanford anticipated. The team went from being on the up with two wins and motivation for more, to back-to-back matches of poor performance and high point differential. The odds are not on Stanford’s side approaching Saturday. When asked how it feels to have the odds against his team, head coach David Shaw spoke to a motivation from within the team.

“We have to go in and not be shy, not tiptoe into the stadium. We have to go in there face-first and give it the best effort that we have, so whatever motivation we can come up with individually, or collectively, we’ll need,” Shaw said. “We’ve got guys that can make plays on both sides and can put us in a position to win. [Utah] is a good football team that does not make a lot of mistakes, so we’re going to have to play one of our better games.”

The last match the Card had with a ranked opponent was a 38-13 loss against No. 12 UCLA. With Utah’s record comparable to the Bruins’, this will be a challenging game for the Cardinal. Junior quarterback Tanner McKee and the wide receivers need to make explosive plays. The defensive players need to stay on their man and not miss tackles. Aggression will need to be employed on both sides of the ball to beat the Utes.

Utah approaches their second-straight weekend at home in good standing. Fresh off a victory against Arizona, the Utes are heading into what could be a fourth notch on their win-streak belt, following wins against USC and Washington State in weeks prior.

Utah is a strong, high-scoring team with a big and skillful lineup that caters to each player’s strengths. Quarterback Cameron Rising, the core to the offense’s success, knows how to play his position well. He is effective at scrambles and reading the opponent to look for tight window passes. Utah’s proven strength is running the ball, as the majority of their touchdowns came from rushes against Arizona.

The defense’s sizable players are physical and aggressive. Every position tackles, playing hungry for the ball. The Wildcats had one quarter versus Utah in which they scored double-digits.

“That was a violent, physical team,” said senior inside linebacker Tristan Sinclair in reflection on the last Utah vs. Stanford matchup — a difficult 52-7 loss for the Cardinal. “That’s what they’re all about, violence and aggression. They want to run the ball. They want to run it straight downhill and right at you to see who’s tougher. We have been preparing mentally and physically for a fistfight.”

Both Stanford and Utah lost to UCLA in matchups last month. The difference: Utah is on the rise. The Utes are ranked because they know how to get the ball into the end zone on offense and keep it away from the end zone on defense. They are focused and aggressive on the field — something Stanford has desired to see for a couple weeks.

Despite Utah’s undefeated record at home this season, Stanford is looking for an upset win in Salt Lake City to sustain its bowl-game hopes and reignite its victorious pursuit. The Cardinal may have some advantage being away, as all its wins against the Utes in program history have been away.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. PT in Salt Lake City.

Hawe is a staff writer for the sports section.

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