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Can injury-prone, turnover-prone Stanford put up a fight against No. 13 Utah?

The low point of the season so far came last week, when Washington State throttled the Cardinal 52-14. The Cougars led 42-7 at halftime

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Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee has continued to lead the Cardinal during season of injuries and adversity.

Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee has continued to lead the Cardinal during season of injuries and adversity.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press

Not too long ago, Stanford was a national powerhouse.

The Cardinal played in four New Year’s Six bowl games in the first five seasons under coach David Shaw. 

“We need them to come out and play their best football. Utah is a very good opponent. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They play really hard and really physical. That’s the kind of game it’s going to be.” — Stanford coach David Shaw

But Stanford has fallen on hard times. 

A year ago, it suffered its worst season since 2006 with a 3-9 mark.

Right now, the Cardinal, a team that’s been decimated by injuries, enters Saturday’s game (8 p.m., MST, ESPN) at Utah with a 3-6 record overall and a 1-6 record in conference play. 

The low point of the season so far came last week, when Washington State throttled the Cardinal 52-14. The Cougars led 42-7 at halftime. 

USA Today subsequently reported that Stanford has hit “rock bottom” under Shaw.

“That was probably the worst possible way to start a game, losing four starters, the middle of our defense, both inside linebackers and both safeties on the first drive,” Shaw said. “We did not recover from there. … It was tough to play without those guys.”

One of those linebackers, who is listed as “questionable” for Saturday is Levani Damuni, who hails from Providence, Utah. 

Among Stanford’s weaknesses this season? Turnovers. The Cardinal, who tied for No. 4 nationally in giveaways, lost four fumbles against WSU.

“Four fumbles made it impossible to stay competitive. I take responsibility for the way our team plays. And we did not play well,” Shaw said. “I didn’t prepare them well enough to give ourselves a chance. At the same time, we have a tough game, a tough opponent coming up on the road. First, we’ve got to get healthy and put ourselves in position to be successful.”

Quarterback Tanner McKee has completed 193 of 318 passes for 2,208 yards with seven interceptions and 11 touchdowns this season. But he’s been without several of his playmakers this season due to injuries. 

How has McKee handled the adversity? 

“Tanner’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen. He’s never faltered through any of the challenges we’ve faced this season, losing guys, losses, wins. He’s pretty level-headed,” said wide receiver John Humphreys. “He attacks every week the same. If we need him to do more, he does more. Through all of this, Tanner has been the backbone of our team, I feel. … He’s been really steady and good for our team, for sure.”

Nationally, Stanford is No. 82 in total offense and No. 102 in total defense.

As bad as things have been, the Cardinal pulled a shocker on Oct. 15, knocking off Notre Dame 16-14 in South Bend — snapping a four-game losing streak. 

“On offense they have good players. They have a really big receiving corps. The tight end is catching a bunch of balls and their quarterback has got a big arm,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “They just haven’t been able to get in sync very often this year. Yet they beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame. They’re a little bit hot and cold. But they do have talent.

“They play hard on defense,” he continued. “They didn’t play their best (last) Saturday against Washington State. I know their defensive coordinator, Lance Anderson, very well. He’s a good coach. It hasn’t been a great year for them to this point. We can’t worry about that. All we’re concerned with is how we play this week and we’re expecting that they’ll play at their best.”

One of Stanford’s best playmakers is tight end Benjamin Yurosek, who has caught 41 passes for 372 yards and a touchdown. 

Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is leery of Stanford’s offensive weapons.

“Their wide receiving corps is really good. People that watch that offense, they’ve struggled a little bit,” he said. “But they’ve got some firepower at the wide receiver position and the quarterback has an NFL arm. The offensive line is solid. Anyone can beat anyone in this league. That’s been proven every single week.”

Meanwhile, Shaw is eager to see his players continue to compete.

“We need them to come out and play their best football. Utah is a very good opponent,” he said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They play really hard and really physical. That’s the kind of game it’s going to be.”

Could it help Stanford that it’s a big underdog against the Utes and expectations are low?

“I’ll take anything I can get right now. Whether guys are fired up and motivated to go win or thinking it’s us against the world, we’ll take all that,” Shaw said. “We’ve got to go in and not be shy and not tip-toe into the stadium. We’ve gotta go in there face-first and give it the best effort that we have. … We’re going to have to play one of our better games of the year to give ourselves a chance.”


Utes on the air

Stanford (3-6, 1-6)

at No. 13 Utah (7-2, 5-1) 

Saturday, 8 p.m. MST

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPN 700