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Stanford’s homecoming will be its toughest test yet

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Stanford’s unthinkable seven-game streak of games away from home finally comes to an end on Saturday. Since COVID-19 restrictions kicked the team out of Santa Clara county in November 2020, the Cardinal have lived on the road, practiced in public parks and, to start this season, crossed timezones twice. 

“It’s been a long time,” said head coach David Shaw after Stanford’s win last week in Nashville. “We’ll have to give the guys a map to the game day locker room. They haven’t been there in so long.”

It’s been an odyssey for the Cardinal. Fittingly, they face the toughest test of their journey on their return home. Stanford (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) hosts No. 24 UCLA (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) at Stanford Stadium on Saturday afternoon in a showdown that will reveal much about the Cardinal’s ability to contend with the top of the Pac-12. 

The Cardinal have momentum on their side after comfortable wins against USC and Vanderbilt, but the Bruins are among the frontrunners in a competitive Pac-12 South division. They were one play away from beating Stanford in double overtime last season and, this year, appear to be a class above the competition Stanford has faced so far. 

Shaw certainly thinks so. 

“In general, [UCLA head coach] Chip Kelly teams are just dangerous, right?” Shaw said on Tuesday. “He has the one thing that I hate a Chip Kelly team to ever have, and that’s an athletic quarterback.” 

UCLA senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs an offense that, on paper, should be a Stanford-killer. Thompson-Robinson is a threat as both a runner and a passer, with a rocket arm that can stretch the field for a talented group of pass-catchers including star tight end Greg Dulcich. He’s also an extra runner to account for in a high-powered rushing attack led by Michigan transfer running back Zach Charbonnet. The Bruins rode their explosive offense to a program-defining win against then-No.16 LSU two weeks ago. 

Thompson-Robinson and company will be a brutal matchup for a Stanford defense that looked porous against the run just last week against Vanderbilt. Containing mobile quarterbacks has been Stanford’s Achilles heel for several seasons. In each of its last three losses, the Stanford defense gave up rushing touchdowns to a quarterback — two against Kansas State in the season opener and three in total against Oregon and Colorado last year. Fans need no reminder that Cal quarterback Chase Garbers’ scramble into the endzone ended the Cardinal’s nine-year grip on the Axe in 2019.

NASHVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 18: Tanner McKee #18 and Jack West #10 before a game between Vanderbilt and Stanford Football at Vanderbilt Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: BOB DREBIN/ISI Photos)

In their last two games, Stanford has shown the firepower to keep up with UCLA’s offense. The Cardinal secondary has picked off a pass in each game this season and could punish Thompson-Robinson’s sometimes inconsistent accuracy. But the Cardinal have lost playmakers on both sides of the ball. Shaw ruled out a slew of impact players for the UCLA game on Tuesday, including starters junior running back Austin Jones, sophomore running backs Casey Filkins and EJ Smith and fifth-year safety Noah Williams. Stanford Athletics declined to answer if any players’ absences were due to COVID-19 protocols.

With three of the Cardinal’s top four RBs sidelined, Stanford needs another strong performance from sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee. He won’t have to look far for inspiration. Last week, Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener threw for 455 yards against the Bruins secondary in a shocking upset win, including a 75-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of the game while hobbled by injury. McKee, on the flight back from Nashville, was watching.

“It was crazy,” McKee said. “[Haener]’s a fighter, he’s gritty. We’re going to need all of that to beat UCLA on Saturday.”

They’ll need the crowd, too. Stanford’s last game with fans in attendance was a blowout loss in the rain to No. 12 Notre Dame in November 2019. The game before that, Cal fans stormed Stanford’s field after retaking the Axe.

Two new classes of Stanford students will get their first introduction to Stanford football on Saturday. They could bring some sorely-needed energy to Stanford Stadium, and the Cardinal are eager to prove themselves.

“The first one, that’s going to be special. We’re excited to be playing in front of our fans,” sixth-year outside linebacker Jordan Fox said. “It’s our house. You gotta protect our house at all costs.”

Stanford’s first home game will kick off at 3 p.m. PT. The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks. Per Stanford Athletics’ new attendance policies, spectators at Stanford Stadium will be required to present either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the game. 

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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.