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Football roundtable: How can the Cardinal bounce back against WSU?
Stanford's all-around defense needs to recover in order to stop a pass-heavy offense led by junior Cougar quarterback Luke Falk. (DAVID BERNAL/isiphotos.com)

Football roundtable: How can the Cardinal bounce back against WSU?

Coming off an underwhelming loss in Seattle in which both the offense and defense couldn’t generate any momentum, what will be the key for Stanford against a lesser but solid opponent in Washington State at home?

Kit Ramgopal (KR): For any team that suffers a 44-6 loss, the first key is composure. Stanford is not a team that loses by 38 points; the team that lost to Washington on Friday was not the Stanford team that played UCLA the week before, nor was it the Stanford team that biked to practice on Monday. It’ll be on team leaders like Dallas Lloyd, Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas to help settle the team down after a rattling weekend and return to the foundational strengths of Cardinal football.

But with mention of “foundational strengths,” we arrive at more logistical hurdles Stanford has to nail down before WSU.

The ingredients for a winning Stanford offense have traditionally been a strong offensive line, a versatile quarterback and a power running game. But this year, the offensive line has three new starters, and it crumbled to Washington defense last Friday. By now, all Stanford opponents know to cater their defensive game to make sure McCaffrey and Love have as little space to work as possible.

However, recently — and especially in the absence of Francis Owusu — Shaw has begun to make use of his younger offensive talent with wide receivers J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Donald Smith. Building a more multifaceted offense is the key to long-term Stanford success this season, especially because quarterback Ryan Burns can’t develop with only one dependable playmaker in McCaffrey. On the defensive side, Shaw needs to close the hole in the backfield caused by the loss of two starting cornerbacks, Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks. One of the most obvious factors of the Stanford loss last Friday was the absence of defensive continuity, while WSU’s willingness to pass is arguably its most distinctive offensive trait — the Cougars tied for first nationally for the most passing attempts per game with 53.75. Whether Stanford can stop the WSU passing game will be the one of the deciding factors of Saturday’s game.

Lorenzo Rosas (LR): The key for the Cardinal to rebound from last weekend will be how Shaw can motivate his line play both offensively and defensively and bring them back from their moratorium in Seattle. On attack, the once-labeled “most interesting” offensive line in the nation, looked disorganized, out-of-sync and unwilling to match Washington’s physicality, an unfamiliar sight from a Cardinal team that prides itself on owning the trenches. The bullying version of Stanford’s “intellectual brutality” looked like nothing more than a whimper from the offensive line, that managed to only rack up 29 yards rushing while allowing a whopping 8 sacks throughout the game. Both Burns and Chryst felt their fair share of hits in the backfield en route to meager performances, and neither quarterback will generate any momentum without a return of their famed and bruising offensive line.

On the defensive side, the Cardinal came into Seattle strong following their 3-sack performance against UCLA, but ultimately they fell flat on their face against a better-equipped offensive line for the Huskies. Their inability to find a solution consequently translated into more time for Huskies QB Jake Browning, which can’t be repeated with the streaking pass offense of the Cougars. As Kit mentions above, the Cougars rely on their passing offense for success in any game, and the defensive line needs to aide its weakened counterpart to generate any success this Saturday. As Shaw continues to be adamant in staying conservative offensively, the defensive line needs to be the backbone of this Cardinal team to create the stops necessary to allow Stanford to play its brand of football against WSU.

Laura Sussman (LS): Watching the Cardinal get pounded was not fun, and a repeat performance is what we all seem to be afraid of. Even as a Cardinal supporter, though, I cannot say that a win was what we deserved. The Cardinal offense seemed unable to adapt to a strong Husky defense launching drives that were weak and obviously ineffective. Stanford was seemingly unable to adapt and, thus, Washington was never caught off guard. Because of this, the Cardinal did not run out and tire the opponents, but simply tired themselves.

The defense seemed unfit to cover Jake Browning, which should not have been the case. The quarterback had 2 touchdown passes by halftime and pressure on him remained feeble. Stanford also lost the opportunity for field goals, somehow getting behind and caught up during action in third-down situations.

After starting the season slow, the Cougars are now roaring behind junior quarterback Luke Falk, who is averaging 371 yards per game in addition to tallying 12 touchdowns this campaign. After seeing last week’s deconstruction of Oregon in Pullman, what aspect of this strong Cougar offense does the Cardinal defense most need to focus on stopping?

KR: You can bet that the Cougars are salivating over every detail from the Stanford-Washington game tape from last Friday, trying to figure out what exactly cracked the Stanford rhythm and how they can slip into those holes. Immediate red flags are clearly the absence of starting cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder. It’s almost too perfect from a WSU perspective; the Cougars arguably have one of the most sophisticated passing games in the conference. Stanford needs to bandage up the Meeks/Holder wound to its team dynamic immediately if it’s going to keep up.

The Cougars are scared to rely on luck against Stanford, as they did in last year’s match-up when place-kicker Erik Powell botched a field goal on the final play, giving Stanford the victory. In recent weeks, WSU has shown off newfound confidence in its running game as a result of Leach’s revamped offensive line, which has grown both physically and tactically in comparison to years past. Thanks to a new security blanket, Leach’s trio of tailbacks — James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow — have racked up 508 yards on 65 carries in the past two games. As Erik Powell has missed all 4 of his field goal attempts this season, expect Cougars to go for it on fourth down. If Stanford defense regains its composure from last weekend, predictable desperation in the red zone could be the Cougar’s Achilles’ heel on Saturday.

LR:  The missing pair of cornerbacks haunted the Cardinal in Seattle as Huskies quarterback Browning threw at will last Friday, scoring 3 touchdowns on the first 4 drives all to different targets, yet the Huskies only needed to accumulate 210 total passing yards in the process.

However, the problem of the Cardinal’s vulnerability through the air was only magnified by the meager defensive line performance that looked like it hadn’t left the Rose Bowl last week. With Browning getting abundant time to throw, any secondary would ultimately be outpaced by UW’s speedy receivers. With both starting cornerbacks still absent, this weakened Cardinal secondary cannot be left so vulnerable by the rest of its defense. Coach Shaw, therefore, needs his defensive line most against Wazzu this upcoming weekend in order to win. Cougar quarterback Luke Falk has been on a tear as of late, racking up yards while boasting a 12:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If the “party in the backfield” becomes nonexistent and gifts Falk time in the pocket, Holder’s and Meek’s absences will once again be felt in a big way, both on the field and on the scoreboard.

LS: These two teams will be running onto the field with two very different mentalities on Saturday: Wazzu will be riding in a wave of glory after demolishing Oregon last week, while Stanford will be licking its wounds after a game projected to be a tight match turned out disastrously. To add to that, Stanford will still be missing two of its essential pieces, corners Meeks and Holder.

Given that Wazzu has had terrible stats and a harsh history against Stanford when it comes to field goals, Stanford’s main goal will be to force field-goal situations to keep the Cougars’ scoring contained. Stanford will also have to be aware of running back Jamal Morrow, who has done a lot for the Cougars so far this season.

Contact Kit Ramgopal at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu, Lorenzo Rosas at enzor ‘at’ stanford.edu and Laura Sussman at laura111 ‘at’ stanford.edu.