Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Maria Khan, football beat reporter for The Daily Californian, and Jibriel Taha, football beat reporter for The Stanford Daily. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Maria Khan: Stanford and Cal have both had a trying season so far, for different reasons, yet losses have been common. If you could attribute the Cardinal’s five-game losing streak to a singular fault, what would it be?
Jibriel Taha: Lack of player development. Injuries have been a major issue for the Cardinal, and they have been beat up on pretty much every phase of the ball except for the offensive line and defensive line. But the drop-offs between the starters and backups have been gigantic, which speaks to the deficiencies in player development and the great irony of this season. Really, for the Cardinal, it comes down to the fact that the two weakest units on the team, the offensive and defensive lines, are the ones that have stayed healthy, so the healthy units aren’t performing well, and the other ones are beat up. The depth just isn’t there for the Cardinal.
MK: Stanford lost quarterback Davis Mills to the NFL draft in May, and Tanner McKee has been out due to injury. Freshman Ari Patu got hurt. Talk about the uncertainty surrounding the Cardinal’s quarterback position.
JT: The position got a little more certain Tuesday morning at head coach David Shaw’s press conference to announce that McKee is probable, so he is going to be the guy they’re likely starting on Saturday. If he’s not good to go, which is quite unlikely, it seems it’d be Isaiah Sanders, a transfer from the Air Force Academy. It looks like McKee is going to start this game, which is a huge boost to the Cardinal offense.
MK: If there is something that could put the Cardinal on top of Cal, what would it be?
JT: It’d be getting McKee back, frankly. We’re also getting some wide receivers back who are finally starting to get healthy. Michael Wilson and John Humphreys are back, and Kyu Blu Kelly, their star cornerback who missed last week, is also coming back. Their starting safety, Jonathan McGill, that I haven’t seen all year play for the Cardinal, is coming back this week. So Stanford is getting a lot of key players back this week, and that should put them over the top, as well as the fact that Cal is coming off of a COVID-19 battle, so that’ll hopefully give the advantage at home.
MK: Seeing Cal’s record, what is an aspect that has the potential to give Stanford a run for its money, or the Axe, in this case?
JT: The nature of it being a rivalry game and also the fact that Stanford has struggled with run defense all year long — that’s sort of been a big bummer for the Cardinal. They haven’t been able to stop. The run gave up over 500 yards to Utah. They did a better job last weekend, so hopefully they can see some positive momentum. But a rivalry game sort of changes everything, as we all know that the energy, the fanfare surrounding it definitely is in this game, and as we’ve seen in the last two years, they’ve all been really tight.
MK: Talk about Stanford’s 52-7 loss to Utah. Was that due to a lackluster defense?
JT: The season really took a downturn for the Cardinal after their win over Oregon. Many Cardinal fans were thinking, “Hey, maybe we have a shot at taking on the Pac-12 North this year if they keep winning.” But it didn’t pan out whatsoever. The loss against Utah was just a culmination of everything, from injuries to the lack of depth on the roster. The run defense has been a battle. McKee wasn’t in that game, so when you can’t establish a running game, you don’t have much else to rely on. It’s all these issues compounded that led to that blowout loss.
MK: In stark contrast, the Cardinal defeated No. 3 Oregon and then went on to lose five straight games. What changed?
JT: A lot of it is injuries and McKee going down — these last two games have really had the offense sputtering. The wide receiver corps got hit pretty bad when Brycen Tremayne, one of the wide receivers, got out for the year. Wilson, their No. 1 wide receiver, just got back one or two weeks ago. Elijah Higgins has been hurt up and down. Humphreys got hurt, so the wide receiver corps and quarterbacks have been hurt, and the offensive line hasn’t been able to establish the run all year. The defensive line has also not been good all year. The struggle to defend the run and then the secondary got beat up too, with their star quarterback getting injured last week. So lots of injuries and a lack of depth is exposing itself.
MK: How are the losses affecting team morale?
JT: It certainly hurts. But coming into the Big Game, we have an extra motivating factor. We have to acknowledge that yes, we’ve missed out on bowl eligibility, but there’s still a trophy on the line this weekend. So I don’t think any of the past losses will sort of deter the Cardinal from being able to be sufficiently motivated for a rivalry game.
MK: Whom would you call the Cardinal’s best player? Or the one who can give Cal the most trouble?
JT: I think their best player is Kelly, cornerback. He’s been excellent all this year. If you go back and watch the USC game, the second game of the year, against USC’s Drake London, he was going toe-to-toe with London. It was a really impressive performance. He’s probably the Cardinal’s best player, but in terms of winning the game, it’s undoubtedly the quarterback position.
MK: What similarities do you see between Cal and Stanford?
JT: Both of these teams are sputtering right now and trying to find a way to pick themselves back up, get back on their feet and try to move around. Both teams are really struggling. Stanford is eliminated from bowl eligibility, and Cal is hanging on by a thread. So both teams need to find their footing, and this is a good way to do so and try to get some momentum heading into next season.
MK: The Axe has been with Stanford for a year. Do you think it’ll keep it? What is your score prediction?
JT: Stanford is in free fall right now. But, getting all those guys back — McKee, Kelly, McGill — those are big-time, important players to this Cardinal team. With Cal being fresh off a COVID-19 mess, that does give the Cardinal a slight edge. 24-20, Stanford.