By Daniel Wu
With two minutes left on the clock in the first half, Stanford had something to prove. The team that upset No. 14 USC in the Coliseum the week prior shouldn’t have been heading into halftime barely ahead 17-14 in a brawl with the SEC’s basement dweller.
In a couple of electrifying minutes, the Cardinal turned things around to show off their potential — and some of the team’s future stars.
Freshman cornerback Jimmy Wyrick lept in front of Vanderbilt quarterback Ken Seals’s pass to secure his first career interception. Two plays later, senior wide receiver Brycen Tremayne cashed in the turnover with a jump-ball touchdown. The Stanford defense forced a three-and-out, and sophomore running back Casey Filkins broke loose on the punt return and took the ball 48 yards into the red zone. Sophomore kicker Joshua Karty drilled the field goal to tack on an additional three points and sent the Cardinal back into the tunnel with an improbable lead.
The Cardinal scored 10 points in one minute and 48 seconds.
That streak of outstanding play helped Stanford (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) to a comfortable 41-23 win against Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-0 SEC) on Saturday night. But the Cardinal needed it to settle into a contest that was not as dominant as the scoreline might suggest.
“It was great to come out with a win,” said head coach David Shaw. “But [there were] great learning opportunities that didn’t cost us a game.”
The momentum of Wyrick’s interception and Filkins’s punt helped overcome sloppy spells throughout the evening, spells which kept the Commodores in the game. In the first half, Stanford built a lead but was stopped on fourth down at the goal line — “I would love to have that call back,” Shaw said — and gave up chunk plays to Vanderbilt’s running backs on 75- and 98-yard Commodore scoring drives.
“They came out pretty explosively running the ball downhill,” said sixth-year outside linebacker Jordan Fox. “[We] made a couple of halftime adjustments and got settled in as a defense.”
The defense did improve in the second half, holding Vanderbilt to a field goal and a garbage-time touchdown. But the Stanford offense stalled instead and couldn’t quite ice the game. At the beginning and end of the half, two Stanford backs scored their first career touchdowns after highlight-reel-worthy plays — senior fullback Jay Symonds trucked a Commodore defender into the turf on a catch-and-run, and sophomore running back E.J. Smith hurdled another on the way to the end zone. In between those scores, though, the Cardinal punted four times and went three-and-out thrice.
“We have to be able to close the door in the fourth quarter when we have a lead,” Shaw said. “We did not do that tonight to our satisfaction.”
Still, Stanford should take plenty of positives from their performance in Nashville, not least the contributions of newer faces like Filkins, Wyrick and Karty.
When Stanford was roundly overlooked in preseason assessments of the Pac-12, skeptics focused on the headliners the Cardinal had lost to the 2021 NFL Draft. But Saturday’s performance gave Stanford fans plenty of new names to watch for the next few years.
Filkins has been buried in the depth chart of a loaded RB room, but he finally got to showcase his speed and vision during his electric punt return. He added 38 yards on four carries on the ground. Wyrick, thrust into action to reinforce Stanford’s injury-decimated secondary for the second-straight game, was excellent in coverage all game long. The true freshman broke up two passes and almost nabbed a second interception on the game’s final drive.
Shaw credited the leadership of Stanford’s veteran defensive backs for preparing the unit’s younger players to make an instant impact.
“This group has been so special,” Shaw said, “taking those freshmen in and just teaching them … a couple of guys go down, and Jimmy’s got to go out there, and he knows what to do.”
Saturday also saw the long-awaited resurgence of Stanford’s run game. Junior running back Austin Jones set the tone for Stanford with a 61-yard dash on the opening drive, setting up a rushing touchdown from sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee. On the next drive, junior running back Nathaniel Peat added a 21-yard scoring rush. The Stanford backfield totaled over 200 yards rushing, an encouraging return to form for a unit that had been expected to anchor the Cardinal offense. Against Vanderbilt, Stanford’s run game finally looked the part.
McKee continued his excellent start to the season, completing 19 of 29 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns, with another touchdown on the ground. McKee is entering elite company with his high-scoring outings — the sophomore’s six touchdowns are the most scored in a Stanford quarterback’s first two career starts since 2003, surpassing the debuts of Davis Mills, Kevin Hogan and Andrew Luck. Defenses across the conference should be wary as McKee continues to develop rapport with Stanford’s towering pass-catchers: his touchdown to Tremayne was a carbon copy of the jump-ball connection between KJ Costello and JJ Arcega-Whiteside that terrorized Pac-12 cornerbacks in 2018.
“I feel that we did enough, but we can be so much better,” McKee said. “We’re going to have to be that much better coming each week and, obviously, against UCLA.”
Stanford has many reasons to look forward to next week’s home matchup against No. 24 UCLA (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12). Saturday’s win caps an exhausting run of seven consecutive road games for Stanford, over which the Cardinal went 6-1. They’ll host one of the frontrunners in the Pac-12 South when they return to the Farm.
The Cardinal will need to keep improving. All the signs from Nashville suggest they can. And if they do, more people will be learning the names of Stanford’s new players soon.