With five games left in the regular season, Stanford’s postseason picture remains as unclear as it was a few weeks ago. The Cardinal is currently sitting in third place in the Pac-12 North race, but its dreams of a conference championship and a Rose Bowl berth are still reachable.
Tomorrow, the team can take a tangible step toward those goals: win and become bowl-eligible for the fourth season in a row.
Rejuvenated by a 21-3 defensive domination of Cal last weekend, No. 17 Stanford (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) will play host to Washington State (2-5, 0-4) in its second straight Pac-12 North matchup tomorrow afternoon.
After giving up only three total rushing yards and racking up 475 yards of offense in last Saturday’s Big Game, the players have put their earlier losses on the road against Washington and Notre Dame behind for good.
Don’t expect the Cardinal to take its foot off the gas pedal.
“We aren’t nearly as good as we can be,” senior fullback Ryan Hewitt said. “That alone should drive us. We haven’t come close to putting together four quarters of good football. I don’t think we can become complacent, but I don’t think we need to worry about that. We’re still striving to be as good as we can be.”
The Cardinal has simply manhandled the Cougars the past four years, winning by an average margin of 31 points. There was no shortage of preseason hype surrounding first-year head coach Mike Leach and his knowledge of the pass-oriented spread offense, but the “air raid” that proved to be a high-flying scoring machine at Texas Tech has yet to materialize into a consistent, potent offense at Washington State.
Given that the Leach dials up passing plays 70 percent of the time, it’s no surprise that the Cougars’ running game, which averages just 40 yards per game, is dead last in the Pac-12.
But Washington State’s passing game hasn’t exactly offset its nonexistent rushing attack. Quarterback Jeff Tuel, making his first start since Sept. 8, regains the starting role under center after being replaced by Connor Halliday in the last few weeks.
Struggling to find a steady rhythm all season, Tuel is 94-of-145 passing for 908 yards and five touchdowns, but has been sacked 12 times and picked off on three occasions. The senior had a respectable 320-yard passing performance against Cal two weeks ago, but was unable to find the end zone consistently as the Cougars fell to the Bears 31-17. Halliday hasn’t fared much better either, having thrown more interceptions than touchdowns this year.
Still, Washington State is not without an arsenal of weapons on offense. The Cardinal secondary has already faced some of the best wide receivers in the nation, including Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Keenan Allen and Conner Vernon. Tomorrow afternoon, it will have to contain yet another dangerous wideout in junior Marquess Wilson, who has been averaging over 16 yards per catch.
“Wilson is up there with all the wide receivers [we’ve faced],” head coach David Shaw said. “Every time you seen Wilson, he beats guys. He beats them at the line, he beats them down the field. When he’s double covered, he goes up, makes plays and runs after the catch…That’s a challenge for us. The last big-time passing offense that we saw, we gave up a whole bunch of yards to. We have a guy coming in who’s pretty special, so we have to make sure that we minimize the damage that he’s going to cause.”
Following its lights-out performance against Cal, the Stanford defense comes into the game ranked third in the nation in tackles for loss, fourth in rushing defense and eighth in sacks. The Cardinal pass defense may be giving up 270 yards through the air per game, but through seven contests, it has held opponents to seven passing touchdowns and come up with nine interceptions.
One of the emerging stars in the Stanford secondary is freshman cornerback Alex Carter, who made his first career start last weekend against Cal. The true freshman caught the eyes of the coaching staff with his physical talents long ago, but is now quickly translating those skills to big-time plays on the field.
“[Carter is] under 10 percent body fat,” said Shaw. “His vertical jump is 40 [inches], he broad jumps 10 feet and he runs in the 4.4 range. Those are NFL combine numbers. And then you say, ‘Wow, he’s 17.’”
Stanford’s offense finally scored a touchdown on the road and won the time of possession battle by almost 14 minutes last Saturday, but neither Shaw nor the offensive players were content about being held scoreless for the second half.
Quarterback Josh Nunes found tight end Zach Ertz early and often in the first half against Cal, but he is still completing only 53 percent of his passes and currently ranked seventh in the conference in terms of passing efficiency.
“Josh played good [against Cal], but he can play better,” Shaw said. “We’re making too many mistakes on the road that may look like the quarterback’s fault. But dropping passes is inexcusable and we’ve got to run routes at the proper depth. Even so, Josh has got to be ready for it. If a guy’s not where he’s supposed to be, Josh has got to be ready and take off.”
After throwing his first career touchdown last Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan will likely be seeing even more action out of the unique “Hogan packages.” As Shaw emphasized, Hogan’s arm strength and passing-first mentality force the defense to be honest when he’s in for an offensive play.
“It’s kind of like having, excuse me for saying it, but like a Tim Tebow on our team,” Hewitt said. “He relishes the role. He likes it.”
Coming off a career-high 189-yard game against the Golden Bears, running back Stepfan Taylor looks to wear down a susceptible Cougars defense that has given up over 175 yards per game on the ground. The senior tailback needs 417 more yards and seven more carries to surpass Darrin Nelson as the all-time Stanford leader in those respective categories.
“[Taylor] is a workhorse,” Nunes said. “We know we can rely on him any point in the game. He always gives everything he’s got. It’s a testament to the work he does in camp and summer workouts. He’s a guy who always spends extra time in the weight room.”
The Cardinal offensive line will especially need to be wary of Washington’s star linebacker, Travis Long. The 245-pound senior has 27 solo tackles on the season along with 7.5 sacks, and his versatility at various places on the field has given offensive linemen nightmares when it comes to blocking him.
“I’m impressed by Long’s versatility,” said Shaw. “He can line up as weak side linebacker or a strong side linebacker. He’ll line up off the ball as the defensive end and the next thing you know, he’s standing in the A-gap, a yard and a half from your quarterback. He’s good wherever they put him; he outworks guys.”
Saturday’s contest between the Cardinal and the Cougars at Stanford Stadium is scheduled for a 3:15 p.m. kickoff, with television coverage on the Pac-12 Networks.