Almost exactly eight months ago, the Stanford Cardinal put on a dazzling show. With its 45-16 dismantling of Iowa in the 102nd Rose Bowl Game, Stanford ended its season on an absolute high note, and further pushed itself into the national conversation as a perennial powerhouse.
No. 8 Stanford will begin to write the next chapter of its storied tale in college football lore as it opens the season against the Big 12’s Kansas State this Friday at Stanford Stadium.
In some ways, the game has the makings for an unfortunate deja vu. Lofty expectations going into a season opener against a purple-and-white non-conference opponent named the Wildcats? Stanford found itself in this spot just a year ago, and if last year’s humbling opener taught the Cardinal anything, it’s that no game can be taken lightly.
“We got beat in the first game last year and it wasn’t close,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said of the team’s 16-6 loss to Northwestern. “Not to take anything away from them but we didn’t play our best game, so it’s incumbent on us to play our best.”
But when examining what’s different about that Cardinal team from a year ago and the current version, the conversation begins with junior Christian McCaffrey. After a Heisman-worthy year in which the star running back broke the single season all-purpose yardage record, all sights will be set on McCaffrey to see if he can replicate his phenomenal season.
However, just as college football media and fans start paying more attention to McCaffrey right away this season, so will opposing defenses. And McCaffrey’s quest to outrun everyone will start off by facing a tough test in Kansas State’s stingy and physical defense.
“They’ve got nine really good football players coming back,” McCaffrey said. “With an experienced defense like that that is so well coached we know we have to do everything right in the game and can’t afford any mishaps.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Kansas State’s defense will be the return of fifth-year senior safety Dante Barnett, who comes back fully healthy after missing almost all of last season with a shoulder injury. Barnett is a three-time captain for the Wildcats, and as a probable All Big-12 player, he is emblematic of the poise and confidence that the defense possesses.
Another big piece in that defense is senior defensive end Jordan Willis, who led the Wildcats with 9.5 sacks last season. Willis is thought to be one of the best pass rushers in the country, and he’ll certainly make things tough for the Cardinal offense.
“If you don’t get your hands on [Willis], he will get his hands on you,” Shaw said. “He sheds blockers and he hustles. They’ve got a good team defensive concept, but he’s a guy that stands out.”
Luckily for Stanford, the offense has no shortage of weapons itself. One big question mark for the team, however, is how the offense will run with senior Ryan Burns, the newly-named starting quarterback, at the helm.
Shaw’s announcement of Burns as the starter came as a surprise to many given how close the race between Burns and junior Keller Chryst was thought to be. And even with Burns as the starter, Chryst will get playing time against the Wildcats, although Shaw has not disclosed exactly how much he will play.
But regardless of who is under center, Stanford hopes that the pieces will be in place for a successful offense. Although the offensive line, with three first-time starters, is untested and though sophomore running back Bryce Love is out with an injury, playmakers abound for the Cardinal, from McCaffrey to the talented wide receivers in fifth-year senior Michael Rector, senior Francis Owusu and sophomore Trenton Irwin.
“What Christian, [junior tight end] Dalton Schultz, Michael Rector, Trenton Irwin [and] Francis Owusu have done is make this quarterback situation easier,” Shaw said. “These guys have played in games. They can make plays for you so you don’t have to be perfect.”
On the other side of the ball, Stanford’s defense looks incredibly strong with a lot of depth at many positions. While some players on the defense will make their first career starts against the Wildcats, including sophomore defensive end Dylan Jackson and junior inside linebacker Bobby Okereke, Stanford plans to rotate through enough that the starting designation won’t carry as much weight as it may have in years past.
“This year the competition has been out of the water,” junior cornerback Alijah Holder said. “I definitely have faith in our depth having seen these guys play every day. I believe everyone on our defense can play, especially in the secondary.”
“We’re the deepest we’ve ever been at the defensive line,” junior defensive end Solomon Thomas added.
Kansas State will counter on the offensive side with a first-time starting quarterback of its own in junior Jesse Ertz, who actually won the job last season before going down with a season-ending injury on his first play from scrimmage last year. Ertz and his inexperienced offensive line could have trouble against the Stanford defense, but they’ll be supplemented by a very versatile running game.
The Wildcats will use a combination of running backs to try and wear down Stanford’s front seven. The rushing corps includes senior Charles Jones, sophomore Justin Silmon, among others, and the constant varying of backs will make it crucial for the Stanford defense to make appropriate adjustments.
Indeed, the Wildcats come to The Farm with a seasoned group that won’t make things easy for Stanford. Kansas State is a highly respected and formidable program, and that starts at the top, with head coach Bill Snyder, who will begin his 25th year calling the shots for the team this season.
“Just one of the legends in the coaching profession,” Shaw said of Snyder. “There’s a standard on and off the field that I think Coach Snyder has kept high for a long period of time.”
The game figures to be an interesting matchup, with two experienced and respected head coaches, two new starting quarterbacks and two strong defenses. In the end, the game will most likely come down to which offense is able to break down the opposing defense first, and though Stanford may have the talent advantage on the offensive front, underestimating Kansas State would be a huge mistake.
Stanford and Kansas State will face off at Stanford Stadium at 6 p.m. on Friday. The game will be televised on Fox Sports One.
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.