View From the Booth: Keep it together

Nov. 10, 2022, 1:59 p.m.

Where to begin?

Stanford football (3-6, 1-6 Pac-12) was humiliated at home last week, falling 52-14 to Washington State (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) a year to the date removed from 2021’s embarrassing 52-7 home loss to Utah. As fate would have it, No. 13 Utah (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) awaits the battered Cardinal, who will require a minor miracle on what is forecasted to be a frigid Saturday night in Salt Lake City to avoid cementing a losing season before the final two games are played.

It took just one drive for the Washington State game to morph into a train wreck. The Cardinal lost four defensive starters — linebackers Levani Damuni and Ricky Miezan and safeties Patrick Fields and Kendall Williamson — to game-ending injuries, surrendered a 65-yard run and watched the Cougars take a 7-0 lead. Soon, the lead was 21-0, and by halftime it was 42-7. Yes, the injuries scuttled Stanford’s defensive gameplans. Yet even then, it is hard to overstate Stanford’s woe: 300-plus yards on the ground conceded to a team who previously struggled to average 85, an inert passing game and four fumbles in five first half possessions. The Cardinal faced a must-win game, but — with a few exceptions — the Cardinal did not show up.

Only two weeks ago, positive signs reappeared following consecutive wins, but the mood around Stanford football soured Saturday. The struggles on the field mirrored the discontent off the field. Saturday’s crowd was equal parts anemic and truculent — a brief “Fire Shaw” chant appeared in the second quarter, while a halftime standoff between students and security over the reappearance of the “Stanford Hates Fun” banner encapsulated the tense atmosphere. Indeed, walking out of Stanford Stadium, it was hard not to think that Stanford football is teetering, and that few embattled Power 5 coaches could have survived such an afternoon.

Amidst all that unhappy noise, the Cardinal must try to regroup for a daunting matchup on Saturday. As for previewing the contest… look, I know games aren’t played on paper, but there isn’t a ton to say here. Utah is a complete team: the Utes are well-coached, dominate the trenches and boast a number of game-winning stars. This year, Stanford depends on an opponent’s limitations to gain a toehold in games; Utah is the only Pac-12 team to rank in the top 32 in FBS in both total offense and total defense and has not lost in front of fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2018.

Last year, Utah ran for 441 yards and six touchdowns against Stanford, and there really isn’t any reason to bet against a similar performance this year. Stanford lacks the personnel up front to match the Utes’ offensive line and has to rely on an inconsistent and injured linebacking corps to fill the resulting gaping holes. Meanwhile, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising arguably represents the cream of the crop at his position in the conference — the Ventura, California product is an efficient passer and capable runner. On the other side of the ball, Stanford’s struggling offense faces its sternest test against a mean Utah defense that will put a lot of pressure on the Cardinal’s passing attack — Stanford graduate transfer Gabe Reid ‘22 has leveled up his play on the edge with Utah this year and cornerback Clark Phillips III leads the nation in interceptions on the perimeter.

Stanford fans entered the season knowing this Utah game may be the toughest matchup of the season, and in previous years, this would be a highly-anticipated slugfest between two gritty teams won in the trenches — indeed, Stanford’s last visit to Salt Lake City (and last win versus the Utes) in 2017 followed this tune, with the Card prevailing 23-20 on the legs of Bryce Love. Alas, at least for now, this game hardly registers: Stanford is back to the point where we can set aside any lofty ambitions and just hope to beat Cal.

Big Game, of course, is a week away, but getting some momentum before going over to Berkeley could go a long way towards reclaiming the Axe: here are some trends I’ll be watching in the Beehive State. 

1. Let the playmakers ball

The season is not over, and Big Game is around the corner. Stanford must avoid any sense of ennui setting in on the players, who at this point are bound to be — and understandably — demoralized and exhausted, both mentally and physically. Players feed off of one another’s energy, and for that reason the Stanford coaching staff ought to scheme ways to proactively put key on-field leaders in position to make some plays. 

Take senior safety Jonathan McGill as an example. The Texan missed most of last season with injury, only returning for the last couple of games, yet since then McGill has become arguably the biggest leader on-field. In last year’s Big Game, McGill flew around the field, and even though he was beaten once or twice, his interception in the end zone and hard-hitting play picked up his teammates. This year, McGill already played a large role in encouraging the coaches to play more aggressively on defense, which led to the successes in October, while even in the tough performance last week McGill made his presence felt with three broken-up passes. If I were Lance Anderson, I would send McGill on a blitz on the first series: if he makes a play, his fire can pick the defense up.

2. Try out some new things

With an eye towards next week and beyond, Stanford should take advantage of the opportunity to try out new wrinkles and personnel.

Offensively, freshman quarterback Ashton Daniels put in an intriguing performance Saturday against Washington State. Yes, the Georgia-product remains a raw prospect — he was responsible for one of Stanford’s four fumbles, while his underthrow on a backwards pass killed a trick play and easily could’ve caused another turnover. However, his mobility could provide Stanford’s flailing offense with a new dimension, and Daniels showed nice touch on a throw to sophomore safety-turned-running back Mitch Leigber on a wheel route in the first quarter.

On the other side of the ball, freshman edge Ernest Cooper continues to show promise on a limited snap count, and fellow freshman Tevarua Tafiti has excited coaches in his early days on the Farm. Cardinal fans would love to see more of them Saturday, and given the injuries at middle linebacker, Lance Anderson may consider tinkering schematically and leverage the depth at edge to offset the weakness inside.

3. Keep it together

Nov. 5 has not been an auspicious date for Cardinal football these last two seasons, and indeed the Washington State game felt a lot like Utah a year prior. Obviously, 2021 snowballed into consecutive blowouts from that point forward. 2022 has often felt like a year of deja vu for Stanford football: at this point nothing else is more important than making sure the wheels don’t fall off and continuing to fight through the finish line.

Pablo’s Picks of the Week:

  • Utah 52, Stanford 7
  • Game I’ll be watching: No. 4 TCU at No. 18 Texas
  • Upset of the week: Arkansas over No. 7 LSU

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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