It’s been a long time coming, but the Cardinal are finally coming home. The last time the football team took the field in Stanford Stadium was a loss to Colorado on Nov. 14, 2020. But Stanford hasn’t played in front of home fans since Nov. 30, 2019, when it lost to then No. 15 Notre Dame. Now on a two-game win streak, however, the Cardinal (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) direct their attention to No. 24 UCLA (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) — a front-runner for the Pac-12 South title despite the fact that the Bruins have yet to play a conference game.
Last time the two teams met resulted in a double-overtime thriller at the Rose Bowl. Can Stanford replicate the winning performance it displayed last December despite losing Davis Mills ‘21 and Simi Fehoko to the NFL Draft? How does losing additional players for undisclosed reasons earlier this week further shake things up? Daniel Wu, Jibriel Taha and Ells Boone share their thoughts.
Cybele Zhang [CZ]: The Cardinal have lost their last three games in Stanford Stadium. Is home field advantage really a thing in Palo Alto? Will the stadium, turning 100 this season, get record turnout now that students have been deprived of in-person games, or will we be back to lackluster pre-pandemic numbers?
Daniel Wu [DW]: Stanford Stadium has been the butt of a lot of jokes for lukewarm attendance, but for once, I’m betting that Stanford’s fans will come out strong and be a factor in Saturday’s game. The freshmen (and sophomores, who weren’t able to come on campus last year) have been restless all week, and a good crowd even showed up to the stadium last Saturday to watch the Cardinal beat Vanderbilt on the jumbotron. I expect plenty of UCLA fans to make the trip up to Palo Alto, too, of course. If the two teams play a close game, this could be the best atmosphere Stanford Stadium has seen since Bryce Love’s heyday.
Jibriel Taha (JT): The home field is definitely a big deal for the Cardinal athletes, even without the atmosphere that many other stadiums produce. The student section will be packed on Saturday, but there are plenty of seats yet to be sold elsewhere. The Cardinal might not get a sellout this week, but if the Cardinal get the victory, it should be a packed house next week for Oregon in a game that could very well decide the Pac-12 North.
Ells Boone (EB): I think the student section will be packed for the reasons Daniel said, but it remains to be seen how many non-student Cardinal fans will show up at the stadium on Saturday. Nevertheless, there should be a real excitement in the air and on campus this weekend, and the team should be able to use that to their advantage.
CZ: Last week, Fresno State exposed weaknesses in UCLA’s seemingly stellar play. What can the Stanford team learn from last week’s upset, and what can the Cardinal do to similarly stop the Bruins?
JT: That they can torch the Bruins defense through the air. The Bruins have given up 785 passing yards in the last two games, and the Cardinal have to like their chances to do something similar given how their quarterback and wide receiver play. On Stanford’s defensive side, it’s going to come down to stopping the Bruins running attack, and that’s a significant concern for the Cardinal. Stanford gave up 200, 185 and 247 yards on the ground in its opening three games, respectively, and UCLA will look to do the same with its running back duo of junior Zach Charbonnet and senior Brittain Brown, as well as senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson who is also a threat on the ground.
DW: I agree with Jibriel — winning the battle in the trenches and limiting UCLA’s run game will be pivotal on Saturday. DTR has the perfect toolset to tear up a Stanford defense that is injury-riddled in the secondary and leaky up front. The Cardinal will need a big game from its stars in the front seven to keep DTR and Charbonnet contained. Senior DE Thomas Booker and fifth-year linebackers Jordan Fox and Gabe Reid were able to step up and deliver in big moments last year, so I’ve got faith. But if UCLA runs all over the Cardinal, this could become a boat race, and I’d rather not see sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee — who’s been stellar but had some close calls with near-interceptions — be forced to make more risky throws. If McKee’s in rhythm and not pressed into hero-ball, I think Stanford’s pass-catchers can overwhelm a UCLA secondary that was exposed by Fresno State.
EB: With the Cardinal’s running back room depleted at the moment, Stanford will have to rely on its passing attack, and lucky for them, UCLA struggles with pass defense as Jibriel noted. McKee has played very well in his first two starts and has all the weapons he needs to do some damage. On the other side of the ball, we saw dual-threat quarterback after dual-threat quarterback tear apart the Cardinal defense last season. DTR thus poses a serious threat, alongside the Bruin running backs. Stanford’s defense has a tall task ahead of them, but the offense has the horses to keep the team in any shootout.
CZ: While Stanford’s homecoming is certainly exciting and perhaps even emotional, this week also marks the beginning of fall quarter classes. In last week’s ESPNU broadcast, commentators mentioned that junior CB Kyu Blu Kelly, like his teammates, have used their free time in the first three weeks for in-depth, multi-hour film sessions. Presumably, however, this will be a less than practical regiment now that classes are underway and in-person. Will the start of the academic term affect players?
JT: Sure, but most of these players, especially those who get significant playing time, have been through an academic year before. And if fans are concerned about the initial adjustment, they’ll be happy to hear that UCLA also started school this week, so both teams are in the same boat. I don’t see this as something to be overly-concerned about.
DW: Shaw has always marketed Stanford football as a 40-year-decision where you come to play school and top-tier football, so I’m sure balancing preparation and classes won’t be an issue for the Cardinal roster. That said, it’s syllabus week, and Stanford has a chance to grab a huge scalp in front of a home crowd against a ranked opponent. If anyone’s slacking their classes to get a bit more film study in, that’s absolutely fine by me.
EB: UCLA started classes the same day as Stanford did, so both teams are in the same boat. I don’t see it being a disadvantage, and I think the experienced players who have done it before know how to balance football with their schoolwork.
CZ: Thus far, Stanford has scored 40+ in every game that Tanner McKee has started. Can it continue this high-scoring streak on Saturday? Score predictions (for the record, Dan Wu is on a 2-0 run like the Cardinal)?
DW: Stanford 41, UCLA 38 —This almost makes up for my 0-2 start in fantasy football. I think Saturday will be a track meet, pun intended. UCLA has the personnel to run all over Stanford on the ground and stretch the field through the air. But Stanford’s shown the ability to score at will, too. A turnover spurred by the home crowd is the difference, and the Cardinal win a thriller.
JT: Stanford 38, UCLA 31 — The Cardinal return home after seven straight road games and the crowd should only add to the confidence they have been playing with the last two weeks. While the Cardinal run defense could prove problematic, McKee and the offense will not slow down, even with a decimated running back room. Peat has been fantastic this year, and as we saw on Sunday Night Football this past week, you can still dominate the run game despite missing your top backs.
EB: Stanford 42, UCLA 31 — It’s the first home game for the Cardinal and UCLA’s coming off a rough loss; I think the ingredients are there for a Stanford victory. Yes, the Cardinal running back room will be operating at a limited capacity, but the passing attack can still thrive. The defense will need to come to play, but I think Coach Shaw will call a good game and get his team to do what it takes to get the win.