We chatted with Hank Waddles (really should be a Duck fan with that name) of GoMightyCard.com in another edition of ATQ & A.
1. Oregon and Stanford have had some epic games, what are some of your favorite memories in this series?
I miss the days when the Stanford-Oregon game was the de facto Pac-12 Championship. One of my strongest memories from this series was from Andrew Luck’s senior season when Oregon derailed what could’ve been a national championship season with a devastating and decisive 53-30 win. What I’ll never forget is the postgame press conference with Luck and his teammates looking as if someone had just died. It was more than just a loss, it was a reminder that as far as the program had come, they still weren’t close to beating the Ducks.
Which leads to the other great memory, 2012, when a redshirt freshman quarterback named Kevin Hogan led the Cardinal to a 17-14 overtime win that eventually catapulted Stanford into the Pac-12 Championship game and the Rose Bowl. If only the 2021 Cardinal had a defense like that team’s. The most important play from that game is largely forgotten — Stanford safety Devon Carrington running down Marcus Mariota on a play that everyone in the stadium, including Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, who was running alongside him, thought was a sure 92-yard touchdown. Carrington pulled him down at the 15, the defense held on an eventual 4th down, and the tone was set.
2. Tanner McKee has quickly made a name for himself, what has most impressed you about the QB?
Stanford fans have been waiting for Tanner McKee for several years. He was one of the top quarterback prospects in the Class of 2018, comparing favorably to people like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, but then he spent the next two seasons on an LDS mission in Brazil. Oregon fans might remember that he took a few snaps in the season opener last November when Stanford’s quarterback situation was thrown into disarray by a false positive Covid test, and although he wasn’t ready physically or mentally to be the Stanford quarterback at that point, that brief glimpse along with memories of his high school film from three years ago was enough to make most observers assume he’d easily win the starting job this summer. When Coach Shaw decided instead to split snaps between McKee and senior Jack West in the opener against Kansas State, some worried this meant he might never be ready. But he looked great as the true starter against USC and even better the next week at Vanderbilt. It’s silly to compare anyone with three career starts to Andrew Luck, but I think that’s the only logical comparison. The skill sets are a bit different — McKee doesn’t have Luck’s scrambling ability, and though he’s taller, he’s not as physically strong — but McKee’s poise and accuracy are reminiscent of the Stanford legend.
But your question is about what’s impressed me the most. McKee struggled mightily in the early going of the UCLA game last weekend as the offense opened the game with four consecutive three and outs and the quarterback completed only two of his first nine passes. He had trouble diagnosing UCLA’s various blitz packages, and when he did have time to throw, he was missing open receivers. But here’s what was impressive — after that horrific start he completed 16 of 21 for 285 yards and three touchdowns. The running game was nonexistent, so there was no mystery about what the offense was doing, but McKee was still able to stand tall in the pocket and throw strikes all over the field. It was an impressive performance for a player making his third career start.
3. What are your thoughts on Stanford’s line play on both sides of the field? Why haven’t they been as dominant as they were in the past?
Stanford’s recruiting has been up and down over the past four years, and no unit has borne the brunt of that as much as the defensive line. The best Stanford defenses of the Shaw era were always anchored by a great player on the defensive line. Guys like Solomon Thomas, Harrison Phillips, Trent Murphy, and David Parry all excelled at Stanford and went on to the NFL. There wasn’t anyone like that the last couple years, and that’s been a problem. Thomas Booker is trying to change that, but he hasn’t had a lot of help this year. Also, there have been mental mistakes that have caused trouble for the Cardinal — failure to maintain gap integrity and a disturbing tendency to line up offsides. There were stretches of the UCLA game when the Bruins had trouble running the ball, but they still pushed past 200 yards rushing. My biggest concern for Saturday is how the Stanford front does against the Oregon running game. That matchup will likely decide the game.
And then there’s the offensive line. Heading into the season I think most observers would’ve pointed towards this unit as the group most likely to perform well. They were returning experience, but more importantly they were returning talent, with highly regarded recruits at both tackles and solid players in the middle. There had been improvement last season, so the expectation was that they’d look even better this year. At no point this season, however, has the line looked good. They’ve been adequate in pass protection, but the running game has been a huge disappointment. How will they do against the best defensive lineman in America? I shudder to think.
4. How will Stanford pull off the upset if that’s what happens this Saturday?
I’m eternally optimistic, so I think there’s a chance this happens. McKee is yet to throw an interception, and he can’t start on Saturday. Once upon a time I thought this team might be regularly rushing for 150-200 yards a game, but that’s turned out to be a fairy tale. If Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones (assuming he’s available) can total 100 yards, and if the Stanford defense can hold the Ducks to under 150 yards rushing, the Cardinal will have a shot. Given the way the game started last week, I think Stanford’s opening drive is crucial. If they can get into the end zone with their first possession, it could be an interesting afternoon.
5. Name a few standout players on offense that Duck fans may not know.
The Stanford receivers have been excellent this year. Even though the leader of the unit, Michael Wilson, has been in street clothes all season, the younger guys have picked up the slack. The two to watch are Brycen Tremayne, a former walkon who currently leads the team in receptions and yardage, and Elijah Higgins, whose combination of speed, size, and hands makes him a future star.
6. Same with the defense.
The surprising strength of the defense this year has been the secondary, and the star of that group has been cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly. David Shaw has been his biggest fan since he arrived on campus two years ago, and we saw some flashes of his ability as a true freshman and even during his injury-marred sophomore season. This year he’s taken the next step and has been the most consistent and dynamic player on that side of the ball. He had a spectacular interception against Kansas State, did a great job defending USC’s Drake London, and came up with a pick six against the Trojans as well.
7. Why was Stanford able to beat USC but not UCLA?
The short answer is that UCLA is much, much better than USC, but it’s also true that the Cardinal didn’t really make any mistakes against the Trojans, and they had long stretches of poor play against the Bruins — like the entire first quarter. This is a team that doesn’t have the talent or experience to overcome mistakes. They had early success against USC, and that seemed to buoy them throughout the game. Last week, however, they just had too much to overcome.
8. What are you most worried about for this Oregon-Stanford matchup?
I mentioned this above, but it’s worth saying again — I’m scared to death about how the Cardinal will handle the Oregon running game. Part of that could be because I still imagine people like Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James and De’Anthony Thomas running the ball for the Ducks, but the more recent memories of UCLA’s tailback tandem gashing the middle of the Stanford defensive line are probably more relevant. The hope is that they can at least avoid big plays and get off the field from time to time. We’ll see.
9. How do you think the Cardinal D will matchup against Moorhead’s offense?
I think the Stanford defense is at its best when defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is more aggressive. He typically holds on to his blitz packages until the second half, but I’d like to see a bit more of that in the first half, even if it’s risky. The great Stanford defenses of the past always operated with the idea that they’d just keep the play in front of them, make tackles, and eventually force the opponent into punts or turnovers, but this unit can’t count on that level of consistent play. They’re going to have to take some risks.
10. Score prediction and season prediction for the Cardinal.
While I’m heartened by some of the struggles the Ducks have had in their four wins, I’m still worried about this game. I think it’s possible that the Cardinal could play much better than they did last week against UCLA and still lose. With that in mind, this feels like a 31-17 win for Oregon. Looking forward, though, there are at least four wins left on the schedule for the Cardinal, and I don’t think it’s out of the question for them to finish with seven or eight wins. Of course, that outlook would change completely if they can get the upset win this weekend.