Stanford doesn’t have fond memories of CenturyLink Field: the one-hoppers from Josh Nunes, the drop by Ty Montgomery, the game-sealing offside penalty committed by Ben Gardner. Three hundred sixty-five days ago on that Thursday night in Seattle, less than two weeks after Stanford had upset then-No. 2 USC, unranked Washington brought the Cardinal back down to earth in a stunning 17-13 victory.
Tomorrow, No. 5 Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) hopes to avoid a similar letdown when it takes on Washington State (3-1, 1-0) in Seattle. Despite a shaky fourth quarter against Arizona State last weekend, the Cardinal is coming off a statement win and looks to keep its momentum heading into the middle segment of the season — a task that it failed to accomplish last year. And once again, the test will come within the hostile confines of CenturyLink Field.
“We have to be cautious,” said head coach David Shaw. “The noise is a factor.”
Despite going into last year’s contest against the Cardinal with a 2-5 record, Washington State kept things close at Stanford Stadium. Only a timely sack by defensive end Henry Anderson allowed the Cardinal to eke out an unconvincing 24-17 victory, prompting Shaw to tell his team after the game, “The sand is dripping through the hourglass.”
There’s reason to expect that Wazzu will put up another tough fight tomorrow, especially considering that Mike Leach has had time to refine his “air raid” in his second year as the Cougars head coach. At the helm of Washington State’s spread offense is quarterback Connor Halliday, who has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,288 yards and 10 touchdowns but has also thrown eight interceptions. A product of Leach’s pass-happy system, Halliday has attempted 187 passes through the first four games of the season.
“The [Cougars] offense is clicking,” Shaw said. “You see guys with a great understanding — not that it didn’t happen last year — but the receiving corps [is] more consistent now, and the quarterbacks [have been] in it for more than just a year.”
“They’re going to spread us out,” added fifth-year senior defensive Ben Gardner, who had a big game last Saturday with a blocked punt. “They’re going to throw it 60 times probably, and they’re going to try to get the ball out quick…I think that they’ve seen a lot of the teams that have played them this season so far use some of the pressure we used on them last year, and they’ve seen them and adjusted to them. We’ll have to show some new looks to them.”
The Cougar offensive line seems to have improved the protection issues that plagued the team in 2012. Wazzu allowed the Cardinal defense alone to record 10 sacks last season; so far this year, it has given up only seven.
To make matters even more difficult, Stanford senior free safety Ed Reynolds will sit out the first half as punishment for a targeting penalty he drew in the fourth quarter in last Saturday’s game against ASU. Though the coaching staff expressed full confidence in senior Devon Carrington’s ability to fill in for Reynolds, the combination of Stanford’s tenuous depth in the secondary and the need to rotate defenders against Wazzu’s up-tempo offense will make it all the more important for the front seven to apply constant pressure on Halliday.
“It might be a little frustrating because [Halliday] is going to get the ball out quick, but we have to keep coming and make tackles on their playmakers in space,” Gardner said. “And then when we get the chance to hit the quarterback, we have to hit him and put him down.”
On the other side of the ball, the Cardinal will have to play without its best player, left guard David Yankey. The preseason All-American will miss tomorrow’s game due a “family situation,” Shaw explained after Tuesday’s practice. In line with the next-man-up philosophy, sophomore guard Joshua Garnett will make his first career start, getting the chance to pull in the Cardinal power running game.
Behind the offensive line, junior quarterback Kevin Hogan hopes to continue his early-season efficiency — and hit a few more deep throws — while senior running back Tyler Gaffney is looking for his third 100-yard rushing game. It won’t be easy, though, against a Cougars defense that has tightened up this year. After allowing 31 points to Auburn in its season opener, Wazzu has given up just 17 points in its last three games, including a 10-7 shutdown of an offensively handicapped USC team and a 42-0 shutout of Idaho last Saturday.
“The one thing no one talks about — ever — when you’re talking about Mike Leach is the defense,” Shaw said. “Defensively, they’re playing really well. They’re playing hard and extremely sound defense. You don’t see a lot of big runs or passes; you see guys where they’re supposed to be and making tackles. They’ve got athletes. They’ve got guys who can run and are aggressive. That’s one huge factor, I think, for how well they’re playing.”
Tomorrow’s game is slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff, with national television coverage on ESPN.
For in-game updates and analysis, check www.stanforddaily.com for our live blog and follow @StanfordSports on Twitter.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.