Stanford Football Offensive Preview

Here you will find a totally neutral and completely unbiased evaluation of Stanford and their football abilities.

Hoo boy. Every year I think about how I want to write the Stanford preview, but each time the game sneaks up on me and when the moment comes, I don’t know what to write. Do I want to give an honest evaluation of their team, or do I want to roast Stanford for an entire article? Do I even need to give any background on the opposing team? If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already intimately aware of why Leland Stanford Junior University sucks. Supposing for a moment that you’re not a Cal fan (and honestly, shame on you), Stanford is allegedly an institute of higher education, and one that is purportedly free of discrimination: they absolutely do not discriminate between the children of billionaires and the children of pitiful and disgusting mega-millionaires.

Here is a genuine moment of learning at Stanford that is definitely not staged in any way:

Sorry, sorry; I’m told I’m supposed to be writing about football. The 2021 edition of the Big Game will be played at Stanford, who has a decided homefield advantage: they are accustomed to playing in front of a raucous home crowd:

Stanford holds a record of 3-7 (2-6 conf.) and currently sits in last place in the Pac-12 North. Stanford actually started the season 3-2 (with wins over USC, Vanderbilt, and Oregon), but is currently riding a 5-game losing streak ever since. As hilarious as that is, there’s an obvious reason: they suck. Wait sorry, I mean: injuries. They lost pretty much every starting wide receiver at some point (Brycen Tremayne, Michael Wilson, Elijah Higgins, John Humphreys), followed by their quarterback, Tanner McKee. Stanford has definitely been resting key players, and I expect them to have most of their key players back for the Big Game; most notably, QB Tanner McKee is listed as probable after missing the past two games with a leg injury. Stanford’s best receiver, Brycen Tremayne, is out for the season (an Oregon corner pointed his foot 180 degrees in the wrong direction), but it is likely we will see the rest of Stanford’s aforementioned top receivers.

Despite the return of Tanner McKee and his top receivers, Cal opened as a 4.5-point favorite. Why? Because Stanford suuuu… struggles (update: the line has since moved to Cal -1.5, undoubtedly influenced by injury/COVID-19 updates by both teams).

In the David Shaw era, Stanford has been a tough team for two main reasons: (1) an NFL-caliber running back (e.g. Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love) behind an NFL-caliber offensive line (7 offensive linemen and 7 tight ends in the NFL that played under David Shaw, but only one such offensive lineman in the past 5 years), and (2) a very disciplined team that makes very few mistakes. In the Big Game, Stanford rarely has costly penalties (e.g. penalties to kill momentum, 3rd and long, avoidable penalties, etc), and they have very efficient drives (slow and steady wins the race).

Since 2010, Stanford has won 10 of the last 11 matchups. In the previous 11 matchups, Stanford was also favored to win 10 of those very same 11 matchups (the sole exception: Cal was a 1-point favorite in 2019 when they won 24-20). Under Justin Wilcox, Cal has beat the spread against Stanford in 3 of the 4 past matchups. This is the most Cal has been favored to win since 2008, when Cal was an 8.5-point favorite (and won by 21).

The point of all this is to say that this is the first time in many years that Cal clearly looks like the better team in the upcoming Big Game (update: down two starting offensive linemen and some injuries on defense, this is not so clear anymore). Stanford is returning most of their starters, which explains why Cal is only a slight favorite. However, one unfortunate thing I have to note is something I learned from the 2020 season. Normally, a team plays better than expected after a BYE week: they have more time to heal from injuries, and they have an extra week to gameplan against their next opponent. In 2020, the opposite was true: any time a team took an involuntary “BYE” (due to COVID), they played far worse than expected when they returned. I don’t know if it is because of the lack of practice, getting out of shape after being sick with COVID, or what, but any team that came off a COVID-induced bye week in 2020 always did worse than expected. If Cal and Stanford were to have played two weeks ago, I am confident that Cal would have handled Stanford. After half the team was infected with COVID, I am far less certain.

Let’s take a look a more detailed look at the Stanford roster.

Quarterback

Stanford’s best quarterback, Tanner McKee, is listed as probable for the game, so I will write this section under the assumption that he’s the player we will see at QB. Stanford’s quarterback situation the past few games has mirrored Arizona’s (hence all the losing), where their 4th-string designated running-QB was alternating snaps with their fifth-string walk-on QB (Arizona: Jamarye Joiner and Luke Ashford; Stanford: Isaiah Sanders and Dylan Plautz).

As much as I’d love for him to fail, I have to admit that Tanner McKee is the best quarterback in the Pac-12, and currently the only quarterback with a plausible chance of playing in the NFL (at the QB position, anyway).

Tanner McKee has fantastic arm talent. He has NFL arm strength, great accuracy and touch on his throws, consistently makes good reads, and he even has enough mobility in the pocket to hurt you on the ground if you give him the chance. My biggest criticism of McKee: get better teammates.

Wide receiver Brycen Tremayne was the next prototypical Stanford receiver (cf. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Simi Fehoko, etc); that is to say, a big-body receiver with a wide catch radius who was great at contested catches and expertly whining for pass interference flags when he didn’t make the catch.

When Stanford’s run game struggled (which it has for the past few years), Stanford relied on a talented quarterback throwing jump balls to a talented wide receiver. Early in the season, the McKee-Tremayne connection continued this trend to great success:

I mean, really, this is just fantastic ball placement on these throws to Tremayne:

I just love the touch that McKee is able to put on his throws, regardless of the coverage. Of course, these sorts of throws into tight coverage require a receiver who has strong enough hands that he can hang onto the catch with a defensive back trying to rip the ball out. Since Tremayne’s injury, the only receiver that clearly fits the bill is the tight end Benjamin Yurosek:

This throw couldn’t be any better: McKee plants his feet despite the pressure bearing down on him, and the pass perfectly splits the two defensive backs (and Yurosek makes the catch with one hand, as the other arm was completely engulfed by the defensive back).

If a receiver can get separation, McKee can hit them:

As much as I would prefer Cal to face Stanford’s fifth-string quarterback, I should point out that in 2019, Cal terrorized NFL-bound QB Davis Mills (now with the Houston Texans). Stanford will need more than a talented quarterback to upset Cal.

The other quarterback Cal will see is Isaiah Sanders, the designated option quarterback. Isaiah Sanders is a transfer from the Air Force Academy, where Sanders ran the triple option (you may remember from the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl; the “Air Force” doesn’t like to air the ball out very much and greatly prefers the ground game). Sanders’ role is similar to OSU’s Jack Colletto or Arizona’s Jamarye Joiner: sure, they’re quarterbacks, but they’re run-first quarterbacks. Sanders can surely throw the ball (and he was forced to throw the ball the past few weeks after injuries to the rest of the QB room), but if Sanders is lined up behind center, he’s most likely about to run the ball himself.

As a former option-quarterback, Sanders will frequently run the option and force defenses to account for his running back or fullback to whom he might pitch the ball.

Sanders is willing to put his body on the line to make the play:

I think Sanders is less dangerous than OSU’s Jack Colletto and Arizona’s Jamarye Joiner, but at least part of this can be attributed to the superior offensive lines of OSU and Arizona. You may be great at running the ball, but if your blocker is being tossed aside quicker than a homeless man panhandling near a Stanford alumni event, you’re probably in trouble.

Stanford has played five different quarterbacks this season, and 2021 is the first time Stanford has ever started four different quarterbacks in the same season. As a result, I have a ton of clips of Stanford quarterbacks who probably won’t play, but I’ll throw out a couple sentences here about the Stanford backup QBs so you can be more knowledgeable about Stanford’s quarterback room than their fans as well.

The original starting quarterback this season for Stanford was Jack West, a former competitor to Tanner McKee in the 2017 Elite 11 competition. Although West showed some promise in 2020, he hasn’t looked particularly great in 2021.

Jack West has a strong arm. So strong, in fact, he’s capable of throwing way over the head of his receiver, directly to the defense:

After both Tanner McKee and Jack West were injured, Stanford turned to true freshman quarterback Ari Patu, brother of Cal linebacker Orin Patu. Stanford kept the offense very simple for the true freshman—the first true freshman to start at QB for Stanford since John Paye in 1983—giving him quick reads and safe throws. A lot of plays last week for Patu were simple high-low reads. Of course, with such easy reads, Stanford’s Patu was sure to capitalize:

At some point last week, Patu tried to scramble and took a big hit on the tackle. This left Stanford with just their fifth-string walk-on quarterback, Dylan Plautz, to rotate snaps with Isaiah Sanders. Although Patu would slightly underthrow his receivers, Plautz wasn’t much better:

Suffice to say, if something were to happen to Tanner McKee, Stanford isn’t looking too hot further down the depth chart.

Offensive line

For many years under David Shaw, the offensive line was the cornerstone of the Stanford offense. They’d line up 17 offensive linemen, 4 tight ends, 2 fullbacks, and run the ball for 3 to 4 yards on every play (P.S.: only one of those numbers is an exaggeration), until well after most of the audience has fallen asleep. Stanford’s offense has struggled in the past few years as they shifted away from being a run-first team to a throw-first team. Starting in 2018, Stanford flipped from one of the best running teams in the Pac-12 to one of the worst, as well as flipping from one of the worst throwing teams to one of the best. Currently, Stanford is dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (95.3 yards/game), and 6th in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (217.1 yards/game). Of course, Stanford could point to injuries along the offensive line which necessitated this change.

However, this year, that excuse doesn’t really hold water. The right guard, Branson Bragg, is the only starter missing from the offense after suffering an injury last week against Oregon State. UCLA loves to bring pressure, and in the following play they rush 5 guys, and only a mere 4 of them get through:

If only Stanford could have double-teamed the other four rushers… they’d still have a man left to run the ball! In all sincerity, expect to see such a play this Saturday with Isaiah Sanders running behind 10 blockers.

Here’s a few examples of the Stanford offensive line getting beat on just a 3-man rush:

Like the offensive line, I apparently lost interest in Stanford’s blocking at some point during their first game.

Running back

I’ll do my best here to highlight the worst rushing offense in the Pac-12. The first thing you should know about the Stanford run game is that they’ve resorted to more gimmicky plays in recent years. For instance, how often do you see a team with a wildcat quarterback, a fullback, and two running backs all get involved on the same play?:

As I mentioned earlier, QB Isaiah Sanders ran the triple-option at the Air Force Academy, so Stanford will run a lot more option plays these days.

The Stanford running backs are willing to put their body on the line. Here’s Austin Jones throwing a block with his behind:

Of course, ball security is a priority for a running back. Here’s the sure-handed Austin Jones securing the football:

In the rare event that Stanford both faces a bad team and manages to successfully block everyone on a play, they almost have enough top-end speed to break off a big run (keep an eye out for the excellent block thrown by WR John Humphreys, #5):

Stanford does like to involve their running back in the passing game, usually because the pocket is breaking down quickly and they need to dump it off:

Not the best handoff, but a good run after the catch here by RB Austin Jones:

While Jones is the more versatile back, RB Nathaniel Peat has more of a power-running style, and is not usually involved in the passing game.

Peat is not the fastest guy, but he’s a bit better at breaking tackles than Jones.

USC does not have the best safeties, but this is probably the only time I saw Stanford break off a big run for a touchdown (the Austin Jones highlight above was close):

Probably the only person at Stanford who won’t indignantly ask you, “Don’t you know who my father is?” is running back E.J. Smith — that is, Emmitt James Smith IV, son of NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith. Smith is in his second season (although remember, the 2020 season doesn’t count towards eligibility — as far as I can tell, he’s athletically a true freshman, although Stanford lists him as a sophomore), and unsurprisingly shows by far the most promise as a running back. He was the #2 ranked all-purpose back coming out of high school in 2020, and he’s just as good of a receiver as he is a running back. He’s got great receiver skills— hands, body positioning, catch radius, etc— in addition to great vision and speed as a running back:

Smith has been a bit banged up recently and is listed as questionable for the Cal game, but I would prefer not to see him. One thing I loved was that even as Stanford was being murdered 52-7 two weeks ago by Utah, his dad was there standing up and cheering every play where his son touched the ball. I love that energy of cheering when you’re down by like 50 points, and it’s the kind of mindset that Stanford fans should find useful in the near future.

Receivers

In addition to the QB position, the WR position is the one that has struggled the most this year with injuries. The following player is not a wide receiver:

The way you can tell he’s not a wide receiver at Stanford is because he only has one clubbed hand instead of two.

With the season-ending injury to Brycen Tremayne, Stanford captain Michael Wilson is probably their best available receiver. Here Captain Wilson sets a nice block on a play:

WR Michael Wilson offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties with CB Clark Phillips III. I’m not a perfect lip reader, but it looks like at the end he’s saying, “Wait until my mom hears about this. She’s a lawyer.”

This sort of dumb penalty was one of the most baffling things I’ve seen from Stanford this year. Who do you think you are, USC? Why are you feuding with random teams like Utah and ASU, both of whom you rarely play? In my totally unbiased opinion, this is a sure sign that David Shaw has lost institution control of his team and they’re on their way to cratering like a hot asteroid during the Mesozoic era.

One thing I was impressed by was the Stanford receiving corps’ hands:

As much as I would have loved to have included some McKee lowlights in this article, most of his interceptions look like the plays above.

McKee’s most sure-handed receiver is actually the tight end, Benjamin Yurosek.

One great thing about McKee is that he has no regard for the health and safety of his teammates as long as it serves his own purpose, something that is taught well at Stanford University, aided by heavily corporate-backed studies.

Although he’s not a very good run blocker and occasionally drops the ball, WR John Humphreys has made a couple of impressive catches:

Humphreys also scored the game-winning touchdown against #3 Oregon:

WR Michael Wilson is probably the most technically sound receiver at Stanford. He runs very crisp routes, and does a great job at fighting off press coverage. I normally would say here that he’s an NFL prospect, but I think his injury history is going to be a big red flag for most NFL teams (and he’s only been back for a couple games this season after missing the majority of the season with another injury).

With all the injuries to Stanford receivers this season, their leading wide receiver is actually Elijah Higgins, although he is also listed as questionable for Saturday (TE Benjamin Yurosek is Stanford’s season leader in receiving yards). With Tremayne and Wilson missing extended periods of time this season, Higgins is the only other receiver I saw and thought, “yes, this guy should be a starter.”

With Yurosek, Wilson, and maybe Higgins, McKee will have enough viable targets in the passing game to move the ball through the air, and so the Cal offense will need to score to keep up with them.

Conclusion

Stanford is a place full of snooty, pretentious, degenerate… oh, right, football. After managing just 10.5 points/game without Tanner McKee, his return signifies a return to a semi-competent offense that can at least move the ball through the air, so this will be the Cal secondary’s biggest challenge of the season. I expect Cal’s front-7 to maul Stanford’s offensive line, pressuring McKee and blowing up the run game (something Stanford is accustomed to by now, so this isn’t a huge deal). Historically under Shaw, Stanford has played a clean and mistake-free game, which allows them to capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes and missed opportunities, so Cal will have to stay sharp to pull this one out.

Stay tuned for the defensive preview tomorrow.

Go Bears, bring home the Axe!