And In That Corner … The reeling Stanford Cardinal closes Notre Dame’s Playoff push

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Cal at Stanford
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In a short week, flipping around this Q&A preview can be a tight risk, but when discussing Stanford’s recent slide in comparison to No. 6 Notre Dame’s late surge, the questions are all at least straightforward. None of these questions were likely to surprise Ben Parker of CardinalSportsReport.com, all having some undercurrent of “Is this fixable?” or “How did this happen?” …

DF: Six straight losses, in which the Cardinal (3-8) has averaged 14.3 points per game, have erased all the encouraging thoughts after Stanford upset then-No. 3 Oregon to start October. The Cardinal have barely put up a fight in this streak, four of those losses coming by at least three possessions. I usually start these conversations with a look at more finite things than this broad question is developing into, so with that intention … Quarterback Tanner McKee missed two of those blowouts, but four of these losses have come with him at the helm. How much could McKee’s health have changed these trends? How much better is Stanford’s offense with the 6-foot-6 passer behind center?

BP: I think if Tanner McKee had been healthy this whole season, the offense would have been better for sure. The 6-foot-6 quarterback has great physical tools, quick release and is a great leader. The offense flows much better with him and everyone has more confidence. There are throws that he can make nobody else on this team can. He’s the best quarterback on this team by a mile. 

That being said, McKee doesn’t play defense, and the defense has had a ton of issues all year with stopping the run. Yes, they’ve been hurt some by being on the field longer than expected due to the offense struggling without McKee, but even so, had McKee been healthy all year, the defense would have still had the issues it did. 

The other point is, it hasn’t just been McKee hurt on offense. Many players have been out on offense at one time or another. The top receiver on the team, Brycen Tremayne, was knocked out for the year during the Oregon game, for example.

Bottom line is, Stanford would have been better on offense with McKee, but that does not necessarily mean it would have won any more games. 

McKee broke out when inserted into the lineup against USC in week two. His first four games as a starter featured 975 passing yards and 10 touchdowns with no interceptions. He has fallen a bit off those paces — now averaging 254.6 passing yards per game as a starter with 13 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions — but there is still some undeniable talent to McKee, once upon a time known as the third-best quarterback in the recruiting class that included Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. He is inexperienced in football terms after taking a two-year mission, but McKee is draft eligible. Do you expect him back in Palo Alto in 2022?

I expect McKee back in 2022, especially given the time he missed, but even if he was healthy all year, I think he’d be back. He still has more seasoning and growth to do. That’s what college is for. Plus, I think he likes Stanford and the community and is enjoying his time on The Farm. I would be shocked if he isn’t starting under center for the Cardinal next fall. 

Stanford undoubtedly hopes so. It averages 3.26 yards per rush. McKee has been the lone offensive bright spot on this roster. Remove scoring 42 points at USC in week two and 41 a week later at Vanderbilt, and the Cardinal has averaged 16.4 points per game this season. I don’t know that anyone expected a powerhouse offense this year, but what went so wrong?

Injuries are part of what went wrong. I mentioned that earlier. Brycen Tremayne was McKee’s top target when he went down for the year, receiver Elijah Higgins missed time, running back E.J. Smith has missed time, receiver John Humphreys missed time, and running back Casey Filkins missed the last few games of the season. It’s tough to have offensive cohesion when so many top guys go down.

The other piece of this is the running game in general isn’t what it used to be. None of the running backs on this team approach Christian McCaffrey or Bryce Love status. So there’s that as well. The lack of an elite running back has hurt this team.

Defensively, it is another examination of shortcomings. Stanford gives up 5.81 yards per carry. Normally I would adjust for sacks on that stat, but given the Cardinal have managed just 14 sacks for 89 yards this year, bumping the number to 6.19 yards per rush is not that much worse. 5.81 yards allowed per rush attempt is plenty worrisome and makes me think Kyren Williams might put together quite the day on Saturday. I doubt you’d debate that — if so, please do!

I’m not going to argue with you at all. Kyren Williams should go off against Stanford’s run defense. The defense has been soft on the interior especially. Thomas Booker is the only good defensive lineman Stanford has. If you neutralize him, running on the Cardinal defensive front becomes easy. Like other running backs this year, Williams should be good for at least one if not two 50-plus yard runs on Saturday.

But looking at those sacks stats, I am prompted to ask, does all or most of this trace to Stanford’s work in the trenches? For so long, that was a strength, but not only is the Cardinal not harassing opposing quarterbacks, its offensive line has also given up 30 sacks this season. This is no longer the Stanford we knew for so long.

Stanford isn’t nearly as stout in the trenches as it was. The offensive line has been better than those sack numbers indicate but still not great. You’re right, both on the defensive line and offensive line, Stanford isn’t what it was and that’s held it back this year.

I suppose that’s about as incriminating a question as I can ask of any program. But I have no doubt in my mind that David Shaw’s job is safe. Even if next year is another debacle, I’d stand by that. What is your read about Shaw’s future?

David Shaw’s job is safe for now. Keywords are, “for now.”  I think he’s built up enough goodwill over the years that he is not in the hot seat, and I think he deserves the time and chance to turn this ship around. That said, if he isn’t able to right this ship in the next couple of years, then I think Shaw’s job security becomes much more of a live question. As much goodwill as he has built up, this industry is about what have you done for me lately and I don’t even think Shaw will be immune from that if he doesn’t get things turned around soon.

In the short-term, the Cardinal is a 19.5-point underdog as of Thanksgiving’s earliest hours. That could close near three touchdowns. What do you anticipate Saturday evening?

My prediction is a Notre Dame 55-10 victory. On paper, the Irish should thump the Cardinal. Stanford just hasn’t done anything the last few weeks to give any sort of hope. The only word of caution I would say is, I didn’t think the Cardinal would beat Oregon and I didn’t think it would beat USC. Maybe it has a little bit of magic left, but I honestly would be shocked so.