THE STANFORD QUARTERBACK competition is over, and Tanner McKee has earned his first start, Saturday night against USC in a Pac-12 opener at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
McKee, a 6-foot-6 sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, will not share time with Jack West, as they did in the 24-7 opening loss to Kansas State in Arlington, Texas. This is his show.
"I told Tanner I just want him to play," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "He doesn't have to take the world on his shoulders. He doesn't have to do anything other than play quarterback."
Neither quarterback separated himself from the other during spring ball and training camp, though Shaw expected the decision would become clearer as the season began.
"Both guys really elevated their games," Shaw said. "Both have played really well until this past weekend.
McKee led Stanford to its only touchdown against Kansas State and made a couple of throws that Shaw said we should expect more of – a beautiful sideline toss to John Humphreys for 29 yards and a 14-yarder in a perfect spot to Brycen Tremayne for the touchdown.
"He's shown the team what he can do," Shaw said. "In the game, he still made some young guy mistakes and still has some things to clean up. But he also showed a lot of promise.
"He has a lot of the traits you're looking for. Quick release, very accurate, very competitive, great leader. For a tall guy, he's pretty athletic too, he can move. He's got a strong arm and can get it down the field."
Though McKee and West combined to complete 23 of 30 passes, the Kansas State defense, untimely penalties, sacks, interceptions, and missed throws all contributed to a disjointed Stanford offensive performance. Stanford was limited to 39 yards rushing and 233 yards in total offense.
Even with McKee's qualities as a passer, it's the running game that may determine the success of the offense.
"Being able to run the ball should take some pressure off of him in his first start," Shaw said. "That's going to be a big factor -- getting our running game started in order to be as balanced an offense as we want to be."
"The more dominant we can be in the run game, the better we're going to be as a team," right guard Branson Bragg said.
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SATURDAY'S GAME MARKS the 100th contest between Stanford and USC in a rivalry that began in 1905. Only Cal, after 123 Big Games, has played Stanford more.
USC leads the all-time series, 63-33-3, but Stanford has had many notable victories. Here is a compilation of some of the biggest, in chronological order:
Nov. 4, 1905—Stanford 16, USC 0: In their first meeting, Stanford shut out the visiting Methodists (as USC was known), who had outscored their previous five opponents 205-0 and were playing for the first time outside of Southern California.
Oct. 30, 1926—Stanford 13, USC 12: On its way to an undefeated season and share of the national championship, Stanford overcame a 12-0 deficit to rally past the Howard Jones-coached Trojans in an upset at the L.A. Coliseum.
Nov. 11, 1933—Stanford 13, USC 7: A year earlier, a group of Stanford freshmen watched their varsity lose to USC and vowed their class never would lose to USC or Cal. They didn't, and the "Vow Boys" legend began in snapping USC's 27-game winning streak in one of the biggest upsets in the history of West Coast football.
Nov. 10, 1951—Stanford 27, USC 20: In front of 96,130 at the L.A. Coliseum, Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a wild 33-point fourth quarter to propel Stanford to victory and a Rose Bowl berth.
Oct. 13, 1979—Stanford 21, USC 21: Not technically a victory, this tie against the No. 1 Trojans was a moral victory in every sense for Stanford, which rallied from a 21-0 deficit behind backup QB Turk Schonert, who relieved freshman John Elway, at the L.A. Coliseum.
Oct. 6, 2007—Stanford 24, USC 23: Among the greatest upsets in college football history, 41-point underdog Stanford snapped No. 2 USC's 35-game home winning streak when QB Tavita Pritchard, in his first start, hit Mark Bradford on a 10-yard TD pass with 49 seconds left to silence the crowd of 85,000 at the L.A. Coliseum.
Nov. 14, 2009—Stanford 55, USC 21: In what is known as the "What's Your Deal?" game based on the spirited postgame conversation between Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh and USC coach Pete Carroll, Toby Gerhart smashed the seven-time defending conference champion Trojans for 178 yards and three touchdowns.
Oct. 9, 2010—Stanford 37, USC 35: Stanford took possession on its own 15-yard-line with 1:02 left and trailing, but Andrew Luck engineered a drive that ended with Nate Whitaker's 30-yard field goal as time expired during a 12-1 season.
Oct. 29, 2011—Stanford 56, USC 48 (3OT): Moments after throwing a tiebreaking pick six, Andrew Luck led Stanford on a late TD drive that forced the first of three overtimes in a back-and-forth contest that ended with A.J. Tarpley recovering a USC fumble in the end zone.
Dec. 5, 2015—Stanford 41, USC 22: In an awe-inspiring display at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Christian McCaffery gained 461 all-purpose yards -- the fifth-highest single-game total in FBS history – in the Pac-12 Championship Game to vault the Cardinal into the Rose Bowl.
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DURING THE PANDEMIC-SHORTENED 2020 season, Stanford and USC did not play each other for the first time since 1945. USC was an opponent in every Stanford season from 1925-2019, minus seasons canceled because of World War II.
In the years Stanford has played football, Cal has been Stanford's oldest annual opponent (since 1892). UCLA is next, playing Stanford each season since 1928.
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LAST YEAR, BRAGG played between future NFL players Drew Dalman at center and right tackle Foster Sarell. Much of the line's leadership came from those two, prompting an offseason meeting among rising juniors Bragg, Jake Hornibrook, Barrett Miller, Drake Nugent, and Walter Rouse, about a possible leadership gap.
They decided to lead together, Bragg said.
"If we can lead in the aggregate, that would be the best way to go about it," he said.
Four members of that class – Bragg, Miller, Nugent, and Rouse -- are in the starting lineup, alongside sophomore Myles Hinton.
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BRAGG BEGINS LIFE as a mathematical and computational science major. He credits a class he took as a sophomore – CS 106A (Programming Methodologies) – for inspiring him.
"I've always been good at math," Bragg said. "I figured I would do something aligned with math, but I took my first computer science class and loved it. It's my favorite class here, so well taught. Then I found that major, which is really half-math, half-computer science, and some statistics sprinkled in. It's the stuff I'm good at and the stuff I like learning about. It's really cool."
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WHAT'S THE MOOD of the team after the opening loss?
"Very hopeful," strong safety Kendall Williamson said. "We took a lot of lessons from that game, where we need to make improvements and what's the next move for us. But that was just the first game in a long season.
"I'm very excited to play USC, the whole team is. I feel like it's a big game for us and we're just happy to move on this week."
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CORNERBACK SALIM TURNER-MUHAMMAD and safety/nickel Jonathan McGill are missed after suffering from preseason injuries. But both continue to impact the secondary with their insights, information, and expertise in helping teammates adjust to different roles.
"We're all working well together," said Williamson of a secondary that includes cornerback Ethan Bonner and free safety Noah Williams. "I feel like we're getting on the same page about our gameplans and all the different things that go on throughout the week. I feel like we are coming together. There's a strong bond that's developing among all of us, and a trust as well."
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IN McGILL'S ABSENCE, Kelly and Bonner added responsibilities of nickelback and defending slot receivers.
"That ability to be diverse and handle both corner and nickel responsibilities, is something that you can't turn your head away from," Williamson said. "It's very impressive. For them to be able to pick it up in such a short time after Jonathon's injury was something I definitely have been impressed with."
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AGAINST USC'S DEFENSIVE front, "We're going to need to step up our game," Shaw said. "I thought we played OK up front (against Kansas State), but could have played much better, and we're going to need to. USC has size, speed, and athleticism. They're always on the attack. It's one of the things we need to respond to. We can't receive their attack, we need to be on the attack."
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STANFORD AND USC have opened conference play against each other each season (except 2020) since 2014. Would Shaw like to return the series to later in the schedule?
"I think we're all used to it now," Shaw said. "Yes, I would like to push this game back a little bit because it is so big, because it is so emotional. You'd love to have a little bit more of a ramp-up to it. And we'll see what happens with our new alliance and changing schedules over the next decade-plus.
"But there's something about having an early-season rivalry game that gets your team excited and motivated to go out there and play well."
Since moving to the early season, Stanford and USC have split their six contests. Stanford is looking for its first victory at the L.A. Coliseum since 2015, when QB Kevin Hogan overcame an early-game leg injury and an 11-point deficit to lead the Cardinal to a 41-31 victory.