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Football roundtable: The wild, Wildcats, and Jack West

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Stanford lost to the conference’s worst team, at home, in convincing fashion. Now, Stanford will finish a three-game homestand with Homecoming against Arizona. The two sides have not faced off since 2016, and have never met under Wildcats second-year head coach Kevin Sumlin. With five games remaining, Stanford finds itself needing to find three wins to reach bowl eligibility. The Daily’s King Jemison, Savanna Stewart and Logan Hatch talk stopping quarterbacks, starting quarterbacks and injuries, lots of injuries.

Last roundtable, we said that UCLA’s best chance of an upset was for Dorian Thompson-Robinson to have a field day. He did, to the tune of 252 total yards and three scores. Now, Stanford faces another mobile quarterback in Khalil Tate. Is Stanford doomed for another long game? Or are there defensive adjustments to limit a Tate explosion and keep Stanford competitive?

King Jemison (KJ): Tate actually got benched in the third quarter of Arizona’s embarrassing 41-14 loss to USC last Saturday, but he is exactly the kind of quarterback who tends to destroy Stanford. Thompson-Robinson faced consistent pressure from the Stanford defensive line last Thursday, but he managed to pirouette out of multiple sacks. Even more importantly, DTR picked up a handful of big gains on the ground, including a 39 yarder to set up a UCLA touchdown drive, and a red-zone touchdown that gave the Bruins a 21-10 lead. I expect that the Cardinal will be more prepared to keep Tate contained in the pocket because he is less of a throwing threat than Thompson-Robinson. But if the Stanford front seven loses contain on Tate and allows him to break loose for big gains on the ground, the Cardinal will give up a ton of points to an explosive Arizona offense. 

Savanna Stewart (SS): Against USC, Tate threw for only 47 yards while completing six of ten passes. Ironically, six was also the number of times Tate was sacked by USC’s defense. If Stanford can apply the sort of pressure that USC used to repeatedly break through the Wildcats’ offensive line, gaining control of the game should be no problem. With that being said, Tate has proved before that he is nothing less than capable from the pocket, like when he threw for over 400 yards against Colorado. I think problems will arise for Stanford if they let Tate get comfortable enough to start making some of the big plays that helped UCLA upset the Cardinal. 

Logan Hatch (LH): What is interesting about Tate is that he is somewhat of an unknown variable in terms of effectiveness against an opposing defense. In the four wins Arizona has had this year, Tate’s impact has been decidedly minimal. He had a breakout game against Colorado in the team’s last victory more than two weeks ago, scoring three touchdowns on over 400 yards passing, but he only scored three touchdowns over the course of the other three wins combined. What’s also interesting is that Arizona’s freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell was able to secure a win over UCLA on his own, and created a more efficient and effective offense during their win against NAU as well. He was even able to score two touchdowns in the little time he was given against USC after Tate was removed from action late in the third quarter. In comparison, Tate has scored two times altogether in Arizona’s two straight losses. To me, the question of contention is less, “Will Stanford’s defense be able to stop Khalil Tate?” and more of “Can Jack West and the Cardinal offense create scoring opportunities in the face of adversity?”

Jack West did not have the performance that he, nor any other Stanford fan, had hoped for when it was announced that he would make his first career start. The sophomore was 15-32 for 143 yards and was sacked on seven occasions, many of which cannot be attributed to the makeshift offensive line. After the game, West said he needs to be able to put his team in better down and distance situations. Is that enough? David Shaw was adamant at the press conference that West was the only option he was considering. Should that change? 

KJ: Stanford will hope that Davis Mills gets healthy enough to start on Saturday because he was rolling before his fourth quarter injury in the win over Washington. And Jack West was definitely… not rolling in the UCLA loss. Clearly, West was incredibly uncomfortable in the pocket. He had happy feet and refused to go through his progressions and wait for a receiver to come open. The throw that really summed up West’s performance for me was a third quarter incompletion where West had Cameron Scarlett wide open coming out of the backfield. There was not a single defender within 15 yards of Scarlett, but West short-armed the throw into the turf. That is something he can easily improve with more experience and more confidence. If West does indeed get the start against Arizona, I expect that he will look much better than he did against UCLA. He has the arm talent, and he can easily put this rough performance behind him. But if he starts and it is more of the same, Stanford has no chance to keep up with the Wildcats. 

SS: While some of West’s struggles may have been the result of a shaky offensive line, it is hard to expect a stellar performance from a sophomore quarterback during his first career start. I wholeheartedly believe that many of West’s errors against UCLA were due to his lack of experience and consequent lack of confidence and composure in such a stressful position. With more playing time will likely come the ability to better anticipate weakness along the offensive line or see the receiver situation down field, but there’s no guarantee these skills are magically going to present themselves against the Wildcats. If Davis Mills can return with the momentum he had earlier in the season, he seems like a much less risky option for the Cardinal.

LH: Now that he has some experience under his belt, and has felt what it’s like to lead a team in a losing effort, I believe that Jack West will have a more mature head on his shoulders for this homecoming matchup. Let’s be honest here – West has talent and potential, but what will allow him to lead this Cardinal squad to victory is his mindset. If West is able to take what happened against UCLA and utilize a bad circumstance as fuel to drive his game, he will improve much more quickly than anyone could expect. Personally, I’m a big fan of the “started from the bottom” type of player. Well, for West—zero touchdowns, less than 150 yards passing and sacked seven times—this should be the bottom. It really is up to him whether he will stagnate or rise from this circumstance, but I believe Jack West has the fortitude and willpower to make something of this.

It is no secret that Stanford is weathering some serious injuries. By Shaw’s count there are five offensive linemen out for the season, and Devery Hamilton is a potential sixth vying to return late in the schedule. In Shaw’s estimation, Stanford was “probably the healthiest team in America for about 10 years.” Now, despite starting the season the deepest in the 13 year tenure of David Shaw as a coach at Stanford, the team is severely depleted. For the second consecutive year, there has been a carousel at the offensive line. Is this season essentially lost because of the injury debt that is now being paid? In other words, does Stanford lose to UCLA if healthy? 

KJ: Frankly, I think that Stanford would have beaten UCLA if just one player had been healthy, and that player is Davis Mills. The offense looked totally lost with a third-string QB under center. Mills alone would have provided enough of a jumpstart to beat a bad Bruins team at home. That being said, the injuries along the offensive line are truly devastating to Stanford’s long-term prognosis this season. With two more injuries, Stanford is starting walk-ons along the offensive line, a recipe for disaster in the Pac-12. The loss of former strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley over this past offseason is clearly having an effect on Stanford’s health. It is up to the weights training program to get players strong enough to sustain the wear and tear of a physical football season. Obviously, many of these injuries have been freak accidents where a player gets rolled up or hit in a bad spot, but the prevalence of these injuries point to the fact that it may not be a coincidence that Turley’s departure came just before the worst injury season for Stanford in recent memory. Another factor that may be affecting Stanford’s health? The grind of this particularly suffocating schedule. The Cardinal have not had an easy victory all season where they could pull the starters to give them some rest. Those extra reps are leaving Stanford’s stars more susceptible to injuries. Perhaps swapping the game at UCF with another matchup against UC Davis or San Jose State might have led to a much smoother season for Stanford. 

SS: Like King said, having Davis Mills healthy would have completely changed the game against UCLA. While obviously it would help to have a more seasoned offensive line, having Mills’ experience from the pocket would likely have resulted in fewer QB sacks regardless of the condition of the offensive line. I admit it’s hard to argue that the excessive number of injuries currently plaguing the Cardinal will not lessen their chances of having an objectively successful year, but part of being a consistently competitive team is being able to make adjustments and adapt to any situation. Though it’s unfortunate that injuries are what’s been fueling major adjustments, this may serve as an opportunity for Stanford to get some of its younger, or less-experienced players onto the field and into high-stress, high-intensity game situations so that—should the uphill battle with injuries continue—there will be enough confidence in the team as a whole that we won’t be asking ourselves if the season is lost. 

LH: I have to say that I agree with Savanna. This season has been tough on injuries, and it’s difficult to argue against it being a prime factor for the team’s lack of success as of late. I tend to remain utterly optimistic toward Cardinal football, even in pretty dire circumstances, but even I know that this season is not going as planned and the future is completely unknown. However, this is not to say that the season is lost as I find it hard to believe that Coach Shaw’s extensive experience in leading this Cardinal program is for naught when it comes to these players. While it’s true that the return of just one player can lift the spirit of everyone on the team and propel Stanford’s game back to where we expected them to be, the same can be said for the execution of just one play. So until the team can get its offensive carousel in order, and get these injured players back to top form, perhaps what the Cardinal need to revamp the rest of this season is just one example of what young talent can do under stellar leadership. Then again, this all may just be wishful thinking. I, for one, will be waiting with anticipation to see if the Cardinal can change everyone’s mind. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Savanna Stewart at savnstew ‘at’ stanford.edu and Logan Hatch at jhatch25 ‘at’ stanford.edu.