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Football roundtable: Unprecedented home opener on deck

The Daily’s Cybele Zhang, Jibriel Taha, Ells Boone and Jacob Neidig discuss lingering questions heading into Week 2

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As expected, Stanford lost its season opener to the defending Rose Bowl champs, 35-14. Less expected was Colorado hanging on for a 48-42 win over UCLA. Before Stanford meets Colorado on Saturday, The Daily’s Cybele Zhang, Jibriel Taha, Ells Boone and Jacob Neidig talk quarterbacks, a safety at quarterback and kicking. 

One question that was never supposed to be asked this season (if Stanford was going to succeed) was about the starting quarterback. A week later, here we are with the team unsure if senior quarterback Davis Mills can play. Between junior Jack West and freshman Tanner McKee, who showed more promise in Game 1? Can Stanford win with either?

Cybele Zhang (CZ): Plan A should be and always has been Davis Mills. He’s the most experienced, most senior and most skilled at the position — which is especially important in this whacky year void of spring ball and a proper summer camp. If he is unavailable, however, Jack West should be the next man up for the same reasons. He’s been in the Cardinal program for two and a half years; he knows the system, the players and the complex playbook. He was solid but not showy at Autzen, finishing 13 for 19 passing with a career-best 154 yards. But with more reps in practice this week, West certainly has the potential to develop the connections with Stanford’s star-studded receiving corps. In contrast, McKee is raw. Yes, he was slightly more recruited (including by Colorado) and more highly ranked coming out of high school than West, who was in the same class — but McKee hasn’t played for two years while in Brazil. He’s unproven, and with the year’s on-and-off-again nature hasn’t had the time to develop the relationships and trust with the team and coaching staff needed of a quarterback. 

Jacob Neidig (JN): When it comes to the quarterback position, I believe two factors outside of pure physical talent — confidence and timing — can often dictate on field success. With the sudden news that Davis Mills is not available, the Cardinal coaches undoubtedly have tried to give Jack West and Tanner McKee as many reps with the first team as possible in order to develop confidence and timing. For either quarterback to succeed against Colorado, it is critical that the offensive play calling incorporates high-percentage, confidence-building throws into the opening script as early and often as possible. In addition, the coaching staff should express confidence in the starting quarterback and allow either West or McKee a few drives to get settled in without the threat of being pulled. With that being said, at various points throughout the game against Oregon, it seemed as if McKee’s timing was slightly off with his receivers. In one particular instance, McKee threw a goal line fade to junior receiver Simi Fehoko. The pass fell incomplete and Fehoko could be seen indicating that he expected a different type of throw. These miscommunications do not necessarily fall on either player, as it is likely they have had limited practice reps, yet they simply cannot happen if Stanford intends to win this season. McKee is undoubtedly the quarterback of the future; however, due to West’s experience in the system and with the current receivers, I believe he gives Stanford the best chance to win this weekend. 

Ells Boone (EB): The offense cannot hit its ceiling this year without Davis Mills under center. Losing him mere hours before kickoff hurt a lot, to say the least. Nevertheless, Jack West and Tanner McKee both put in respectable performances for the Cardinal against Oregon. West showed a greater command of the offense, making those pre-play checks and adjustments that are key for any Stanford offense. He had a very nice throw to junior receiver Brycen Tremayne early in the game despite some of his other miscues. McKee showed why he was so coveted as a recruit in his limited action, evidenced by his first pass, which got called back because the ball was snapped after the quarter ended, and his deep bomb to Simi Fehoko. The future is bright in the quarterback room for the Cardinal, as McKee is a more than worthy replacement for Davis Mills down the road. However, if Mills cannot take the field against Colorado this Saturday, I think Coach Shaw should start the game with Jack West again, with McKee playing a few drives. West has just been in the system for a longer amount of time and allows a larger playbook. McKee will get his chances, like he did against Oregon, and those drives may see the Cardinal air it out a bit more. I think the duo of West and McKee is enough to get a win against Colorado, but we will not be able to see what this offense is truly made of without its main man, Davis Mills. 

Jibriel Taha (JT): Tanner McKee is the future of the program, but Jack West should get the start Saturday afternoon. As Cybele mentioned, McKee was on his LDS mission the past two years, leaving West better acquainted with the team. However, I do expect McKee to get a couple drives each game until Davis Mills returns. But more importantly, Stanford can win with either quarterback thanks to the Cardinal offensive line. The Cardinal allowed just one quarterback hurry and no sacks against an excellent Oregon front seven on Saturday. Not to mention the impressive run game they were able to establish. An effective run game and lack of pressure from the defense is a dream scenario for any quarterback, so if the offensive line continues to perform well, either quarterback can lead the Cardinal to victory.

Freshman quarterback Tanner McKee (above) played in two drives in Eugene, Oregon and threw for 62 yards. (Photo: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/ISI Photos)

Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer played safety last year but made his starting debut last week with 257 passing yards, 64 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground and in the air. Also in that game, Jarek Broussard ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns. With the help of four turnovers, Colorado put up 48 points. How worried should Stanford be?

CZ: To borrow from UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert, “We made [Broussard] look better than he was.” The Stanford defense, although not perfect, is superior to UCLA’s that gave up 525 yards and five rushing touchdowns to the unranked Buffaloes. Stanford needs to improve on third down after a weak performance against Oregon, particularly in the second half, but Colorado’s offense is not comparable to Oregon’s. Junior defensive end Thomas Booker will pressure Sam Noyer more than the Bruins did, and (hopefully) the return of sophomore cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly will help the Cardinal defend downfield

JN: The Cardinal defense was gashed by the potent Oregon ground attack, giving up an average of 6.7 yards per carry and 269 yards total. These numbers were the most the Cardinal defense has given up in Pac-12 play since the Ducks ran for 276 yards in 2017 and the UCLA Bruins averaged 7.67 yards per carry in 2017. While two-time 1,000 yard Duck rusher CJ Verdell’s 100+ yards and a touchdown isn’t ideal, the more worrisome aspect of the Cardinal rush defense last weekend is that sophomore Oregon QB Tyler Shough carried the ball 11 times for 85 yards and one touchdown. If the Stanford defense can contain Sam Noyer on the ground and continue forcing turnovers, they should be able to put the Cardinal in a great position to pick up win number one of the 2020 season. 

EB: Colorado was a team expected to struggle heavily this season, breaking in both a new head coach and quarterback. They quickly put those preseason predictions to rest by outplaying UCLA in their first game. However, while they put up some impressive numbers on the ground and through the air, they do not pose the same threat that Oregon did. Stanford’s defense will definitely have to step up to the task, but they have already seen perhaps the best offense they will face in this shortened season. 

JT: A little worried. Of course, Oregon has a much stronger offense than Colorado, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the Cardinal gave up at least 60 yards on each of Oregon’s last six drives. The Cardinal would undoubtedly benefit if cornerback Kyu Blue Kelly returns, but the secondary nevertheless held its ground for a large part of Saturday’s game — the stats look worse in large part because of some excellent catches by Oregon wide receivers on deep balls. I’m more worried about the defensive line, which failed to record a sack and only managed one quarterback hurry on Saturday. Of course, Oregon has a stronger offensive line than Colorado, but the defensive line has to step up for the Cardinal to have success on this side of the ball.

Last time Stanford played Colorado, a field goal as time expired was the difference. Fifth year kicker Jet Toner has made all 103 PATs he has attempted at Stanford and has a full vote of his confidence from his head coach. But in a close game that could be once again decided by three points, should Stanford stick with Toner?

CZ: As I said in the preseason predictions, “Kicker Jet Toner is solid and experienced in his fifth year and could be a decisive factor in the Cardinal’s favor in close games.” Despite Saturday’s shocking performance, I stand by what I wrote. I think Stanford will beat the Buffalo by more than a three-point margin this weekend, but, that being said, Toner’s field goal percentage over the last three years has been 75%, 93% and 81%. The Oregon game was a fluke. Toner can make 50-yarders, usually consistently, and he was making them in warm-ups at Autzen. Last week was taxing nationally, so it’s understandable that a kicker, arguably the most mentally demanding position on the field, might be distracted — especially after not playing since being injured on Oct. 18 versus UCLA. But practice this week should give Toner the time he needs to settle in. I still have faith in Jet.

JN: I couldn’t agree more with Cybele. Kicking is one of the most mentally strenuous positions in football, and it was clear that Toner was in his own head after struggling early against Oregon. With the confidence of his coach and a week to get back on track, I believe Toner will return to his normal, automatic self. When it comes to late-game, high stress situations, having experienced veterans gives any team an edge. Toner is one of the most experienced and successful kickers in all of college football. I trust Toner to put the team on his foot if called upon. In terms of the game and season as a whole, it is vital that Toner is not forced to attempt four field goals in any other game this year. The Stanford offense has to perform better inside the opponent’s territory. Against Oregon, the Cardinal offense had five empty possessions after snapping the ball from inside the Duck’s 35 yard line. That is unacceptable. With a breakout star in sophomore Austin Jones at running back and a deep receiving corps, these possessions must end in touchdowns if the Cardinal want to be successful the rest of the year. 

EB: You had to feel for Jet Toner on Saturday night. Coach Shaw showed strong support for Toner in his post-game press conference and made it clear that Jet will continue to be the starting kicker going forward. You cannot really argue with that either as Toner has been great for the Cardinal in his career until Saturday night. Hopefully the show of confidence from his head coach and a week of practice will improve his confidence for Colorado. However, if the struggles continue, Stanford does have freshman Joshua Karty, the consensus No. 1 kicker in the 2020 class, waiting in the wings. 

JT: Absolutely. Jet Toner is a preseason All-Pac-12 conference honorable mention for a reason. I agree with Cybele that Saturday was likely a fluke, and Toner without a doubt has more chances before coach Shaw turns to Joshua Karty. I also want to emphasize Jacob’s excellent point: the Cardinal need to cash in when they drive down the field. With the way the offensive line performed and Stanford’s running back duo of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat, we need to see Jet Toner more often for extra point attempts, not field goals.

Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu, Ells Boone at eboone24 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Jacob Neidig at jhneidig ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jibriel Taha at jtaha ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Cybele Zhang '22 is majoring in English Literature with a minor in German Studies. The Los Angeles-native has served as Sports Editor, her current position, for Vol. 255, 257 and 258. Her writing covers a wide range of sports, but she especially enjoys writing about women in sports and NCAA policy. Contact her at [email protected]
Ells Boone ’24 is a staff writer for the sports section. Hailing from Virginia, he enjoys watching basketball, football, soccer and tennis. You can catch him waking up early on Saturday mornings to watch his favorite Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspur, play. Contact him at eboone24 'at' stanford.edu.
Jibriel Taha ’24 is a staff writer for the sports section. He is from Malibu, California and studies economics and political science. In his free time, he enjoys watching football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and tennis. He also umpires and referees youth sports. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ stanford.edu.