The parallels are everywhere: A 3-0 Stanford team heads to CenturyLink Field to take on an unranked but upstart school from the state of Washington for a prime-time matchup on ESPN.
So where will the parallels end? Stanford hopes that nothing Saturday will resemble 2012’s Thursday night debacle — well, maybe except for a pick-six from fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy.
The tricky part for Stanford is that the Cardinal will be nowhere near full-strength, especially in the first half. Senior defensive end Henry Anderson will be out for the second straight week with his knee injury, senior safety Ed Reynolds is suspended for the first half due to an ejection for targeting against Arizona State, senior left guard David Yankey is out for family reasons and senior cornerback Barry Browning is questionable due to a lingering injury suffered against Army.
Those absences prompt my first key to the game: winning the first half. With Washington State’s home-field advantage and Stanford’s reshuffled, short-handed lineup, the Cougars have an opportunity to deliver the first blow. If Stanford struggles to control the ball on offense, Wazzu’s air-raid offensive attack could present serious problems that will compound every time Stanford’s defense has to step out onto the field without enough time to rest. I can envision a scenario in which this game could quickly turn ugly, leaving Stanford with an uphill battle in the second half when Reynolds returns and Stanford’s younger replacements will have settled down.
On a related note, perhaps the best way to earn rest against the potent Washington State offense is to force quarterback Connor Halliday into turnovers. Halliday has put up great numbers in many categories — 66 percent completion and 322 yards per game are nothing to scoff at — but he has a turnover problem (8 interceptions in four games). The challenge for the Cardinal is that Stanford’s best ball hawk (Reynolds) is suspended for the first half. Look for his replacement, senior Devon Carrington, to step up and potentially snag his first career interception. He’s no stranger to big plays — just ask Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Historically, Washington State has presented Stanford’s offense some surprising problems, even when the Cougar defense is unheralded. This season, though the offenses Wazzu has faced haven’t been very strong, head coach Mike Leach’s defense has impressed critics. Stanford’s offense, led by junior quarterback Kevin Hogan and senior running back Tyler Gaffney, will be the most potent competition for Wazzu by far, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Cougars will fold.
For some reason, Washington State has always given Stanford’s running game trouble. It will be up to Hogan to get the Cardinal into the right looks and Gaffney to capitalize behind a Yankey-less offensive line. In 2012, the Cougars sold out to stop Stanford’s rushing attack and it worked: The Cardinal averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. However, that game represented one of the lowest points of Stanford’s passing offense and led to Hogan’s replacement of quarterback Josh Nunes. With Hogan’s improvement and the emergence of junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery, Stanford’s multi-dimensional attack should open up the Cardinal’s rushing and passing offenses. If either unit slacks, Wazzu could potentially shut Stanford down and put a big scare into Shaw and Co.
And we all know how loud CenturyLink Field will be if that happens.
Sam Fisher wrote this article while listening to heavy metal on full blast, simulating the ear-splitting hell that is CenturyLink Field. Suggest your favorite Billy Joel song as a post-writing cool-down at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.