STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — When Stanford was rolling through the Pac-12 early in coach David Shaw’s tenure the formula was pretty simple.
The Cardinal overpowered opponents in the trenches with a dominant offensive line that fueled one of the nation’s best running games and a defensive line that was relentless.
That’s what made last year so surprising and frustrating for Shaw with an offense that couldn’t run the ball and a defense that couldn’t stop it. The issues in the trenches led to a season-ending seven-game losing streak and a 3-9 record for the worst season on The Farm since a one-win season in 2006 the year before Jim Harbaugh arrived to turn thing around.
“We did not play our brand of football last year to any degree,” Shaw said. “So now for these guys to come back, for me to continually say how our team goes depends on the offensive line. I mean it. Those guys are going to set the table for us.”
The Cardinal return all five starters from the line led by left tackle Walter Rouse and left guard Barrett Miller. But they’ll need much better play from that group to improve on a running game that ranked 126th out of 130 FBS teams in 2021.
“There’s a reason why they call it growing pains, because sometimes it hurts,” Shaw said. “We had some growing pains last year.”
The run defense was even worse, with the Cardinal ranking 127th in FBS. The team was outrushed by a staggering 148.1 yards per game.
The strength of the Cardinal should be the passing game, with NFL prospect Tanner McKee back for his second season as starting quarterback and receivers Michael Wilson and Brycen Tremayne expected to return from injuries. With tight end Ben Yurosek and receiver Elijah Higgins back after solid 2021 seasons, the Cardinal may move the ball through the air if McKee gets any protection.
“We never had a game with all three of those guys at the same time with Tanner,” Shaw said about his receiving trip of Wilson, Tremayne and Higgins. “We never had a game with all three of those guys and Ben Yurosek, who we believe is going to be one of the top tight ends in America.”
While most of the offense returns from last season, there is a hole at running back after Austin Jones transferred to USC and Nathaniel Peat moved onto Missouri. That sets the stage for E.J. Smith to take over as starter. The son of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith had 26 carries for 133 yards and one TD last season.
LOCK IT DOWN
While the defense struggled up front last season, the Cardinal do bring back an NFL prospect in the secondary in cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly. Stanford got a boost when Kelly decided to return for his senior season instead of entering the draft. Kelly had two interceptions and 11 passes defensed last season when he was named to the Pac-12’s second-team all-defensive team.
After an easy opener against lower-level Colgate, the Cardinal play their usual tough schedule with the other two nonconference games coming at Notre Dame on Oct. 15 and at home in the finale against BYU. The Cardinal get an early test in Week 2 at home against Southern California and will have to make trips to Oregon in October and Utah in November.
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