By Daniel Wu
There was plenty of reason to be wary. Stanford was entering the season without a full-time quarterback starter and had impact players to replace across the roster. The Cardinal were playing on the road, with their body clocks out of sync in the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium, in a mostly partisan crowd — and that after not playing in front of fans since 2019.
But the lifeless offensive performance that the Cardinal produced against Kansas State on Saturday surely fell below even the most cynical of expectations. Senior quarterback Jack West threw two interceptions, the Tunnel Workers’ Union was swamped, the defense gave up big plays and the offense went scoreless for three quarters. The Cardinal (0-1, 0-0 Pac-12) sunk to a 24-7 loss against the Wildcats (1-0, 0-0 Big 12) to open the 2021 season.
“Disappointing to me that we didn’t go out there and execute better,” head coach David Shaw said. “Our guys are going to be sick when they watch this film.”
The loss is Stanford’s second-consecutive defeat in a season opener, snapping the four-game win streak that ended the 2020 season. The Wildcats, who finished last season on a five-game losing streak, picked up their first win since Oct. 2020.
It was clutch quarterback play and a bruising offensive line that helped Stanford win four straight at the end of last year. Both deserted the Cardinal in Dallas.
With the quarterback competition to replace Davis Mills still unresolved, senior Jack West and sophomore Tanner McKee split drives throughout the game, with mixed results. West finished 8-for-12 for 76 yards and two interceptions, while McKee went 15-for-18 for 118 yards and a touchdown in garbage time. Shaw stated that he saw multiple opportunities for big plays that both quarterbacks missed.
More surprising was the collapse of a Stanford offensive line that returned three starters and helped the Cardinal rush for an average of 133 yards per carry last year. New offensive line coach Terry Heffernan’s unit gave up four sacks and struggled to open holes against a punishing Wildcat defensive line. Star junior running back Austin Jones was held to just 25 yards after averaging 92 yards per game last season.
“We had a few nice creases,” Shaw said. “But then once we got down we tried to mix in the run, and we were inefficient — and then we had to throw the ball.”
Despite offensive woes, Stanford kept the scoreline close for three quarters thanks to improved defensive performance. The Cardinal’s opening drive stalled out after two consecutive false starts on the offensive line, but junior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly later intercepted Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson in the endzone with a spectacular grab over the head of an outstretched receiver.
Stanford’s defense was bolstered by the return of senior ILB Ricky Miezan, registered three sacks and six tackles for loss up front, including a career first for senior TE/DE Tucker Fisk. But the Cardinal gave up several explosive plays that allowed the Wildcats to build an early lead. In the first three plays alone, Kansas State put up 58 all-purpose yards.
Thompson, unencumbered in his first game after returning from a season-ending injury last year, repaid Kelly’s interception by bowling him over in the endzone after converting a 56-yard strike down the field. As the half wound down, Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn took a give-up run on third and a long 59 yards to the house after Stanford called an ill-timed blitz.
It was a disheartening mistake for a defense that struggled against the run last year. Thompson would rush for two touchdowns in total, while Vaughn added 124 yards and a score on the ground.
The Cardinal defense settled in during the second half, forcing an opening three-and-out, but Stanford’s offense never fully found its rhythm to get the Cardinal back in the game. McKee engineered Stanford’s longest drive of the day to finally get Stanford within the Kansas State 25, but two sacks and a delay-of-game penalty pushed Stanford out of field goal range.
The Wildcats added a field goal and another touchdown after West’s second pick gifted them a short field.
Facing the prospect of a first shutout since 2006, the Cardinal finally found the endzone at the bottom of the fourth quarter: senior WR Brycen Tremayne corralled a well-placed pass from McKee on the edge of the endzone. But it was too little, too late. Vaughn rubbed salt in the wound by ripping a final 42-yard burst as the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Stanford will need to find answers quickly with this year’s brutal schedule. A showdown against projected Pac-12 South front-runner No. 15 USC still looms.
Some of the Cardinal’s younger pass-catchers, including sophomore WR John Humphreys and sophomore TE Benjamin Yurosek, showed promising chemistry with McKee and West, and Shaw remained bullish about the team’s talent at offensive line and running back. ILB Jacob Mangum-Farrar, a late scratch for Saturday’s game, is also expected back next week.
“We’ve got talent. We’ve got ability out there,” Shaw said. “We just seemed disjointed.”
Next, Stanford heads to LA to face USC on Sept. 11 at 5:30 p.m. PT.