Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Tanner McKee was singled out by the UW defensive staff as having one of the best arms in all of college football. Is this just coach speak, or are they right? How would you assess his play so far? How did the pass protection look versus two vastly different opponents?
Hank Waddles: McKee is definitely a difference maker at quarterback. He looks like a prototypical NFL signal caller with height, decent mobility, and a strong arm that can make all the throws. He wasn’t quite as accurate against USC as he was against Colgate, but he was still successful and was able to take advantage of his talented — and healthy — wide receivers. Offensive line play was a major problem last season (for the last few seasons, if we’re being honest), but things looked better against the Trojans. USC doesn’t have the most fearsome defense in the league, but it was still a positive step for the line.
UWDP: The running back duo of E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins has been the one-two punch for the Cardinal this season. Now it appears that Smith with be out. Does the running game look any better than it did a year ago?
Hank: The loss of E.J. Smith for this game is disappointing, but not completely unexpected. He’s proven to be incredibly versatile and he’s clearly the best back on the squad. That being said, Casey Filkins is also fairly versatile and has gotten a fair amount of playing time, first in the blowout win over Colgate and then in the second half against USC as Smith was dealing with his injury. The running game has been much better than the last couple years, thanks to a surprising new wrinkle.
David Shaw has been widely criticized for (stubbornly or steadfastly) staying committed to his offensive scheme while the rest of the world has moved into the 21st century. Against USC, however, the Cardinal introduced its new “slow mesh” run-pass-option game, modeled after what Wake Forest has been doing for a while. It starts out like any option look, but it’s… slower. McKee puts the ball in his running back’s arms, and then they prance along the line of scrimmage for a long second or two, enough time for McKee to read the linebackers and safeties and determine whether to release the ball to his back or to pull it back and pass. It was refreshing to see something new, and encouraging to see something new that worked. Were it not for several unfortunate turnovers, the Cardinal offense would’ve kept pace with the Trojan offense.
UWDP: Tell us about Stanford’s WR group. McKee seems to be spreading the ball around like he did last season. Will TE Benjamin Yurosek be a featured in Saturday’s game plan?
Hank: The Stanford wide receiver corps is talented and deep. Michael Wilson has developed a reputation as an outstanding route runner, and he’s healthy after last year’s lost season. Brycen Tremayne has had a miraculous recovery from a gruesome ankle injury suffered against Oregon last season and returned to his role as the most consistent receiver in the group. The former walk-on is probably McKee’s favorite red zone target. Elijah Higgins might be the most talented member of the group, with excellent hands, NFL size, and deceptive speed. He’s one of the fastest players on the Stanford offense.
Given all of that talent, Yurosek isn’t necessarily a focal point, but he’s still a weapon. He surprised everyone two weeks ago when he took the ball on a reverse and sprinted for fifty yards. If the Stanford running game can be effective, McKee will get the one-on-one matchups he looks for, and the Cardinal will be able to put points on the board. Assuming they can get past the turnover problem.
UWDP: The defense did a nice job shutting down Colgate in the season opener, but were lit up pretty badly in the first half against USC. How has the play of the defense been in your opinion? Who are some players to keep an eye on?
Hank: I think this game will tell us everything we need to know about the Stanford defense. I think USC probably has the best offense in the conference, so it honestly wasn’t a surprise that they scored five touchdowns in the first half, even if they were aided by Cardinal mistakes. Stanford held them to only a pair of field goals in the second half, but that likely had as much to do with the USC’s taking the foot of the gas as it did with Stanford’s defensive adjustments, but there was definitely improvement after halftime, and there’s definitely been improvement since last season. Even so, this is a far cry from the dominant Stanford defenses of ten years ago. Kyu Blu Kelly is a solid cornerback, and the rest of the secondary is good, but the front seven is… porous. Probably the best player in that group is a true freshman, edge rusher David Bailey. That statement says as much about the older players as it does about Bailey. He’s a future star, but unless we’re talking about Jadaveon Clowney, a team’s best defender should not be a true freshman.
UWDP: Give us a “status of the program” for David Shaw’s Cardinal football team.
Hank: Well, this is a loaded question, isn’t it? I’m still one hundred percent in Shaw’s corner, but I’m increasingly in the minority. I think that most fans have decided that the game has passed Shaw by, and they’re ready for a change. The reality, though, is that Shaw isn’t going anywhere until he wants to, and it’s fairly clear that he doesn’t want to. It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard any NFL rumors, and aside from the fact that he desperately wants to win, he’s comfortable at Stanford. Stanford’s success during the early part of the last decade was driven by an incredible run of talent on both sides of the ball, and I just don’t think it’s realistic for this school to have a convergence like that happen with any type of regularity. What we’ve seen over the past few years is that even though there have still been some good recruiting classes, there haven’t been any great ones, and there is usually one position or another that isn’t addressed. (The current lack of size on the defensive line is a prime example.) There’s also been less high end talent in the West recently, and even though Stanford is a national recruiter, it’s always easier to get guys who are closer to campus.
Critics are also upset with the staff below Shaw. When Stanford was going to Rose Bowls, their coordinators were routinely hired away, but that hasn’t happened for a while. At first, that was thought to be an advantage, but that perceived stability now looks like stagnation to some. Tavita Pritchard has been the offensive coordinator since 2018, and Lance Anderson has been in charge of the defense since 2014. While many were calling, at least, for changes in both positions, Shaw made it clear that that’s not how he does business.
I don’t think we’ll ever again see a run of three conference championships in four years, but I also don’t think we’ll see a season as bleak as 2021. The truth is likely somewhere in between.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Hank: Two weeks ago I was highly optimistic about this game. It felt strange to watch my team lose so decisively to USC and come away feeling optimistic about the season, but that’s exactly how I felt. The offense looked better than I had seen it since before the pandemic, and it was easy to blame the defensive struggles on USC’s elite offense. Washington’s offense, however, also seems fairly scary. But we’re at a point in the season where we still don’t really know how good anyone is. Was Michigan State really one of the better teams in the country? Does that now make Washington one of the best team’s in the country? Those answers will unfold over the next several weeks, so right now we’re left guessing a little bit.
But I have faith in what I saw from the Stanford offense two weeks ago. Stanford currently has the worst turnover margin in the country at -7. That’s either a symptom of systemic failure or it’s an incredible fluke. Since no team can be so flawed that it turns the ball over four times every game, I’m guessing that’s at least a little flukish. If the Cardinal offense can play a clean game, something they haven’t come close to doing yet, I believe they’ll be able to stay with the Huskies at least into the second half. Should that happen, things will get interesting.
I still think the Cardinal will lose a close one, something like 34-30.
Thanks Hank. For more on Stanford, be sure to check out Go Mighty Card