After seven straight seasons below .500, the No. 12 Stanford football team looks to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive year when it takes on Washington State on Saturday.
The Cardinal (5-1, 2-1 Pac-10) is coming off a bye week, which followed a thrilling last-second win over USC on Oct. 9. Meanwhile, the Cougars (1-6, 0-4) have lost 21 of their past 22 conference games, and their lone win on the season was a one-point comeback victory over FCS foe Montana State.
In the first BCS standings of the year, which were released on Sunday, Stanford was ranked No. 12, as the Harris Poll put the Cardinal at No. 13, the USA Today Coaches’ Poll at No. 14 and the computers at No. 10. While playing Washington State will not help Stanford’s strength of schedule, a big victory could help move the Cardinal up in the polls. A win on Saturday would also give Stanford its best start since 1970.
Like most Pac-10 teams, Stanford has had little trouble with Washington State the past few seasons. Last year, the Cardinal opened its season with a 39-13 victory over the Cougars in Pullman, Wash., and two years ago Stanford routed Washington State 58-0.
The Cougars have struggled in recent seasons, particularly on the road. Washington State has not won a game outside the state of Washington since 2006, a string of 20 consecutive defeats. The past few games have been encouraging, though, as the Cougars have held tough against quality teams. Washington State’s last two games were both against top-20 teams, Oregon and Arizona, and it lost both respectably, 43-23 and 24-7. This is in stark contrast to the last two years, when the Cougars lost by combined scores of 122-42 and 100-13 to the same two teams, even though both the Ducks and Wildcats are having better seasons this year.
Despite their improvements, though, the Cougars are still among the worst teams in the nation in several statistical categories. Out of 120 FBS teams, Washington State is 103rd in scoring offense, managing fewer than 20 points per game, and 116th in rushing offense. This pales in comparison to the Cougar defense, though, which is dead last in yards allowed, second-worst in rushing yards allowed and third-worst in points allowed.
That defense will surely be tested against Stanford’s offense, one of the most potent units in the country. The Cardinal ranks fifth in scoring offense, averaging over 40 points per game. Perhaps even more impressive, and tough to defend, is Stanford’s ability to spread the wealth. Just six games into the season, 17 Cardinal players have scored a touchdown — the most in the nation. To put this in perspective, Washington State as a team has only scored 18 touchdowns on the year, and the Cougars have played one more game than Stanford has.
Leading the Stanford offense is redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who has been in Heisman Trophy discussion all year long. Luck has lived up to his billing, ranking ninth in the country in passing efficiency while leading the Pac-10 in total offense. The Cardinal running game has not particularly slowed down this season, even without Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. Stanford averages 210 yards per game (the same as its average at this time last year) and over five yards per carry, led by sophomore running back Stepfan Taylor. Taylor is averaging about 80 yards per contest on the ground, but since he was given the role as lead back against Notre Dame three games ago he has eclipsed 110 yards in each game.
The more interesting battle in this game will likely be the matchup of Stanford’s defense and Washington State’s offense. Despite their struggles, the Cougars are only two spots below Stanford in passing yards per game, due in large part to the strong play of sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel. Tuel has passed for over 200 yards in every game this year — something Luck has not done — even though the talent around him is significantly worse than most of the defenses he has faced. Tuel’s favorite target has been freshman wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who is 14th in the country and second in the Pac-10 with 92 receiving yards per game.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s defense, which was a surprise bright spot in the first four games, has regressed the past few weeks. After ranking 11th in total defense and 12th in scoring defense through four games, the Cardinal defense was shredded by the two best offenses (statistically) that it will face all year. Stanford’s defense surrendered 626 yards, including 388 rushing, in a loss to No. 2 Oregon. The next week, the Cardinal struggled against USC’s aerial assault, allowing Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley to throw for 390 yards, including 224 to freshman wide receiver Robert Woods. The combined 87 points and 1124 yards allowed in those two games dropped Stanford to 56th in total defense and 58th in scoring defense.
New Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio implemented a hybrid 3-4 defense starting this year, and that unit will likely have to regroup and revert to its early form if Stanford is going to contend for a possible BCS bowl. The Cardinal is still alive in the conference race, and Stanford could also go to the Rose Bowl as an at-large team if it wins out and Oregon meets Boise State, TCU or Utah in the BCS National Championship Game.
Last year, Stanford came out of its bye week by shocking then-No. 8 Oregon 51-42. That game made the Cardinal bowl-eligible and propelled it into the AP Top 25 for the first time in eight years. This week, Stanford can again become bowl-eligible by winning after its bye week.
The contest against Washington State is also the Cardinal’s annual Reunion Homecoming Game, so Stanford alumni from several decades are expected to be in attendance at Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal’s last game, a 37-35 nail-biting win over USC, set an attendance record for the remodeled Stanford Stadium with over 51,000 fans on hand.
The Cougars and the Cardinal will kick off at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.