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In SEC country, Stanford must prove they’re contenders

Cardinal to face Vanderbilt in first SEC game since 1978

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Stanford’s demolition of No. 13 USC last weekend was an upset shocking enough to finally end the tenure of embattled Trojan head coach Clay Helton. But on Tuesday, David Shaw had a message for the Trojan administration and anyone else who couldn’t comprehend the way the Cardinal manhandled USC.

“For those that have an issue with losing to Stanford, we’ve been good for 10 years,” Shaw said. “They’re living in the past.”

That would have been a stunning statement just a week ago. The Cardinal’s thrashing at the hands of Kansas State in the season opener seemed to revive the narrative of a program in decline. Then, Stanford marched into LA and dispatched a top-15 team so handily that they had emptied the Coliseum by the third quarter.

Stanford (1-1, 1-0 Pac-12) has simply been two completely different teams in its first two outings. Now, on its furthest road trip of the last few seasons, the Cardinal heads into SEC country to face Vanderbilt (1-1, 0-0 SEC). Stanford now has a chance to prove that they’re a contender that will persist for the rest of the season.

“[We are] coming off a good win, but we’re not where we want to be,” Shaw said on Tuesday.

For what it’s worth, Vanderbilt is perhaps the weakest opponent Stanford will face in its exclusively Power 5 schedule this year. The Commodores’ win against Colorado State last week was their first since 2019, snapping an 11-game losing streak that included a winless 2020 season. Toward the end of that season, Vanderbilt fired their head coach (and former Stanford defensive coordinator) Derek Mason. Stanford will face the Commodores in the third game of a total Vanderbilt-rebuild.

The matchup has all the makings of a trap game, especially with ranked opponents No. 13 UCLA and No. 4 Oregon visiting the Farm in the two weeks immediately after. But Shaw and his team made it clear that Stanford wouldn’t underestimate Vanderbilt, nor would they let the narrative around a Pac-12/SEC matchup go to their heads.

“I really try hard not to get into all that stuff,” Shaw said. “I just want to be 2-1 after this weekend.”

“We’re ready for a dogfight,” senior linebacker Ricky Miezan said. “No matter who we play, we want to play up to our standard.”

That standard was set pretty high in the Coliseum on Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee will look to build on an astounding first career start after completing 70% of his passes for 234 yards and two passing touchdowns against the Trojans. He’ll face a respectable Commodore passing defense that picked off Colorado State on Saturday and boasts some height in their secondary that could match up decently against Stanford’s towering receivers.

On Tuesday, Shaw praised McKee’s development and ball placement — an encouraging sign for a quarterback who still has plenty of time to grow in Stanford’s system.

“He does a really good job giving guys opportunities,” Shaw said. “Over the top, down the field, back shoulder, lean-him-don’t-lead-him t— those are the things that really showed up in this game that he’s been working on.”

The Cardinal, however, has yet to reestablish the dominance in the run game that carried them through the 2020 season. Junior running back Nathaniel Peat’s 87-yard house call masked a generally shaky ground game against USC. Outside of that burst, Stanford rushers gained only 54 yards on 29 attempts — an average of just 1.86 yards per carry. Vanderbilt has been porous against the run, giving up over 200 rushing yards to Colorado State and 179 to FCS team East Tennessee State. It will be worrying if Stanford isn’t able to gash the Commodores on the ground. 

Meanwhile, Stanford’s defense will face a Vanderbilt offense that also feeds a tall group of wide receivers. Junior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly is elite, but around him, the Cardinal secondary are dropping like flies.

Shaw announced that starting senior cornerback Ethan Bonner will be sidelined due to injury for a second consecutive game. Two true freshmen, cornerbacks Jaden Slocum and Jimmy Wyrick, will play at several positions in Stanford’s two-deep in the secondary. Wyrick played well when pressed into service at USC, breaking up a pass and grading among the Pac-12’s top safeties. Stanford’s depth will need to step up with the schedule ahead. The Cardinal, more than most teams, suffer when playing from behind — they cannot afford to give up explosive plays through the air.

Fifth-year tight end/defensive end Tucker Fisk is also injured — he will be a day-to-day decision. He’ll probably be missed most up front on defense, where Stanford managed only one tackle for loss and no sacks last week despite keeping the Trojans in check for most of the game. Though Vanderbilt’s rushing attack is paltry, some of the toughest competition in the country looms in the form of UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet and Oregon’s CJ Verdell.

In the best of worlds, Stanford returns from Tennessee with answers to the team’s issues in the trenches and confidence-building reps for McKee and the young replacements in the secondary. But the Cardinal cannot be caught looking ahead. Before conference play begins in earnest, they still need to prove who they are.

“There are no trophies being handed out for being 1-1,” Shaw said.

Stanford takes the field against Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. PT, and the game will be shown on ESPNU.

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Daniel Wu '21 is a Desk Editor for News, and also contributes to Sports, Arts & Life and The Daily's Graphics team. Contact him at dwu21 'at' stanford.edu.