Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Tanner McKee has been extremely efficient this season, with a 14/3 TD to INT ratio while averaging nearly 250 yards per game. What have been the keys behind his success? Where can McKee still get better?
Hank Waddles: Tanner McKee has been even better than expected this season. He was a highly recruited quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class, ranking along side players like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, but then spent almost two years in Brazil on an LDS mission before returning when the pandemic hit in early 2020.
He played a few series in last year’s opener against Oregon, and while he still hadn’t regained his strength or completely learned the playbook, his raw talent was evident. The coaching staff didn’t see what the rest of us did, however, so he wasn’t named the starter this season until the second game, but he’s been fun to watch.
Every game he makes a few Sunday throws, passes that you don’t typically see from college players, and there have been times when he’s looked like the best quarterback in the conference. He seems to have a lot of confidence in his wide receivers, and both he and they credit extra work that they’ve put in together to build familiarity. One weakness in his game, however, is pocket awareness. He’s mobile enough to scramble and get yardage where it’s given, but too often he overstays his welcome in a collapsing pocket and takes unnecessary sacks. Once he cleans that up, he’s going to make things all the more difficult for opposing defenses.
UWDP: How has Stanford’s offensive line played so far this season, both in protection of McKee, and in the running game? The running back duo of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat have produced only two rushing TDs. Is this not a great rushing attack in 2021 for the Cardinal?
Hank: Entering the season, the offensive line was the unit with the fewest question marks and was definitely expected to be a strength. They seemed to have finally recovered from the injury-plagued 2018 and 2019 seasons, as the 2020 line performed a bit closer to Stanford standards. With several four-star prospects across the line, most observers felt like the 2021 group would lead a resurgent Stanford running game that would make things easier for a new quarterback. That hasn’t been the case. This unit has been much better in pass blocking, but it should be mentioned that defenses have been loading the box against the Cardinal, choosing to roll the dice against McKee and the Stanford passing game. Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat are both excellent backs, good enough put up excellent numbers if given the chance, but they haven’t gotten those chances this season.
UWDP: McKee has really spread the ball around this season. Tell us about a deep Stanford WR group, how they are utilized, and a beast at the TE position in Benjamin Yurosek.
Hank: This projected as an excellent year for the wide receivers, as the room was as deep as it’s ever been, but they’ve been hit by injuries, starting at the top. Team captain Michael Wilson suffered an unspecified injury during training camp and has been in street clothes all season. He’s listed as “questionable” this week, but I think I’ll be surprised if we see him. Walk-on-turned-starter Brycen Tremayne was having an excellent season before suffering a horrific injury during the Oregon game, so now there’s almost no depth at the position.
The good news is that Elijah Higgins has emerged as one of McKee’s favorite targets and a difficult cover with an NFL combination of size and speed, and Ben Yurosek seems to be on his way to becoming the next great Stanford tight end. Occasionally one of these receivers will get loose for something deep, but there’s no true speed threat here. Instead, watch for back shoulder throws down the sideline and slants over the middle. In the red zone, you’ll obviously see a steady diet of corner fades. Because Stanford.
UWDP: Stanford is 82nd in scoring defense nationally, and 116th against the run (the only Pac-12 team below Washington). The Cardinal have been much better defending the pass (37th nationally). How has the play of the defense been in your opinion?
Hank: There are few things more satisfying than those seasons when your team has a dominant defense, but that’s not the case this year for the Cardinal. They’ve had a few solid performances — in the win over USC, and even in the loss to Arizona State, as they kept the Sun Devil offense off the scoreboard in the second half. But they disintegrated in the fourth quarter against Washington State, allowing the Cougs to march the length of the field for a game winning touchdown in the closing moments. Like most struggling defenses, they’ve been inconsistent, but the most frustrating aspect of this unit has been the lack of discipline.
I’ve never seen a Stanford defense make so many mental errors — poor gap integrity, missed coverages, and most frustrating of all, at least one or two penalties a game for lining up offsides. The secondary has been the strength, led by cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, but it’s probably more accurate to credit their moderate statistical success to the fact that the run defense has been so bad that opposing teams have no reason to pass. The front seven has not been able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and opponents have taken advantage of that.
UWDP: Anyone banged up or missing this week for David Shaw?
Hank: In addition to Wilson and Tremayne, another important piece that’s missing is Casey Filkins, a slick backup running back who had been the starting punt returner. A more important player to watch, however, is right tackle Myles Hinton. He was injured in the fourth quarter against Washington State, and the line struggled in his absence. Coach Shaw didn’t mention him in his press conference this week, but there’s an OR next to his name on the depth chart. It will be a huge cause for concern if he isn’t available on Saturday night.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Hank: There seems to be an awful lot of negativity in those first five answers, but I still believe the Cardinal offense will be able to do enough to come away with a win over the Huskies. I feel like this might be the game when Jones and Peat are able to produce more of a running attack, and that threat from the backfield will open things up a bit more for McKee. That should add up to a 28-20 Stanford win.
Thanks Hank. Be sure to check out Go Mighty Card