By Cybele Zhang
Hopes were high as senior quarterback Jack West took the field on Saturday. But after two interceptions, it became clear that West’s first career touchdown would continue to elude him.
Since Davis Mills’s ’21 departure last season, a quarterback competition between West and sophomore Tanner McKee — the higher-ranked recruit from their common recruiting class — has commenced. Despite the sophomore’s stronger spring game performance, the battle continued through camp and into the season. Only on Friday did head coach David Shaw announce that West would start, with the duo splitting time throughout the game.
“Both guys throughout training camp practiced extremely well — good with the ball, careful with the ball, accurate, decisive,” Shaw said. “Both guys are a little inexperienced, and some of that showed up today.”
The Cardinal fell 24-7 in the season opener versus Kansas State, but the scoreline is perhaps not indicative of the true struggle Stanford faced. The Cardinal pieced together a meager 14 first downs; most were hard-fought, and few plays were showy.
Throughout the game, West went 8-12 with two interceptions, while McKee was 15-18 with no interceptions. West threw for 76 yards, while McKee had 118. In contrast, the Cardinal last season, behind mostly Mills, averaged 287.33 passing yards per game. Both West and McKee had negative, but minimal, rushing yards. The lone touchdown of the game came from the sophomore, but the damage had already been done.
“Both guys played solid, but not near the way that they practiced and not near the way we need them to play for us to win,” Shaw said.
After receiving his third career start, West started the game with a hand off to junior running back Austin Jones for a short gain before a few short-yardage throws. Yet the gains were inconsistent, and the Cardinal were forced to punt on the first drive — a trend that repeated throughout the game.
To Shaw, the largely unimpressive offensive performance began with the run game, which Stanford “couldn’t establish.”
“Once we got down, we tried to mix in the run, but we were inefficient — very inefficient,” he said. “And then we had to throw the ball. [Kansas State] is a tough team to just drop back and throw the ball a whole bunch of times against, because they don’t give you a whole lot.”
There were opportunities though for both quarterbacks, as Shaw acknowledged, but the Cardinal “didn’t hit enough of them,” which resulted in too few first downs and only one scoring drive.
About West, Shaw saw negative plays as the greatest challenge. Despite two long throws, turnovers at crucial times proved to be West’s kryptonite.
West and McKee cycled in and out somewhat sporadically throughout the game, neither truly differentiating themselves from the other. The latter, a Corona native, entered the game for the first time at the end of the first quarter, and he put together Stanford’s lone touchdown pass in the Cardinal’s final possession of the game — a fourth-quarter 14-yard shot to the far left of the end zone picked up by senior wide receiver Brycen Tremayne, who managed to get a foot in with control of the ball despite good defense.
“I think the offense was just throwing nicely, and it was a little more up-tempo,” Tremayne said of the scoring drive. “I trusted Tanner to throw the ball in the right spot, just high, and I went up and got it for him — just like we do in practice all the time.”
As a spectator, things felt different when McKee took the field. There was energy, the offense moved a little faster, and drives felt as if they had more scoring potential. McKee made a few other long plays of his own — including an impressive throw to sophomore wide receiver John Humphreys (look out for that emerging SoCal connection in coming games and years) — yet McKee, too, had much to improve on.
“Tanner did a solid job getting the ball out of his hands — held it long maybe one or two times,” Shaw said. “A big thing with him — he probably missed about three big plays. I think one he didn’t see and two others we just missed the throw by eight to 16 inches.”
Although many fans hoped for a commanding performance by one, if not both quarterbacks, we have yet to see one fully take control. Both had moments of promise, but their flaws and failure to put up points (except for the final drive) dominated the storyline.
There is still no word on who will start next week against USC at the Coliseum, and no decision yet on when a permanent starter will be named. Undoubtedly, the Cardinal will spend a lot of time this week dissecting game tape.
“We can make plays with both quarterbacks,” Tremayne said. “We’ve been doing that in camp. So, I mean, I’m sure they’re going to choose the guy down the line, but that’s coach’s decision. They’re going to make the best decision for our team.”
At the moment, based on objective statistics (proven ability to score and maintain possession), McKee is looking like the best decision — but only time will tell.