By George Chen
Games are always played out differently on the field than they are on paper.
That’s why on Saturday afternoon the second-worst defense in the conference found a way to limit a Doak Walker Award candidate to 58 yards on the ground. That’s why on Saturday afternoon a pass defense that gives up over 287 yards through the air each game managed to hold a quarterback to 136 passing yards. That’s why on Saturday afternoon the outcome of the game was much closer than many predicted.
A win is a win, but it certainly was not the way head coach David Shaw drew it up.
A 24-point favorite going in to the game, No. 14 Stanford (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) escaped with an unconvincing 24-17 victory over a scrappy Washington State (2-6, 0-5) team that refused to quit.
“We played to about 70-75 percent of our capabilities,” said Shaw. “We did not play as well as we practiced. We played hard, but the execution was lacking.”
The Stanford defense broke a school record by sacking Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel 10 times but also allowed the senior to complete over 71 percent of his passes for 401 yards. One-upping its dominant shutdown of Cal a week ago, the Cardinal run defense also held Washington State to -16 yards on the ground, a statistic made less impressive only by the fact that the Cougars rushing attack is currently ranked dead last in the nation.
However, finding bright spots in the Cardinal offense’s performance is a different story, as Washington State outgained Stanford 385 yards to 256. Quarterback Josh Nunes had one of his worst outings at home, underthrowing and overthrowing open receivers on numerous occasions to finish the game with 7-of-15 passing for only 136 yards and a touchdown.
“We had a good practice,” Nunes commented. “It just didn’t show up out there in the game. They did some good things, but I feel like we shot ourselves in the foot a decent amount, too. We know that we can get more production out there and that there were some plays that we left out there.”
Daring the redshirt junior to throw all afternoon, the Cougars’ defense effectively loaded the box and limited Stanford’s ground game to 120 yards. On some run plays, senior halfback Stepfan Taylor had to do all he could just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
“Stepfan got the ball at least five times off the top of my head and as soon as he touched the ball there was a guy in the backfield,” said Shaw. “A guy that should’ve been accounted for…For Stepfan to have 20 carries and the limited yards that he had, that’s not up to our standard. We can do so much better and we didn’t.”
Stanford’s opening drive didn’t exactly foreshadow the offensive struggles it would have later in the game. True freshman wide receiver Kodi Whitfield made his first career catch to pick up a first down, and a 17-yard dash by the speedy Anthony Wilkerson two plays later allowed Jordan Williamson to nail a 48-yard field goal. Just like that, the Cardinal was up 3-0.
“It was great finally having the hard work pay off,” said Whitfield. “The coaches put in a plan for me and got me an early touch. It just feels good to finally transfer practice into the game.”
Wazzu had trouble maintaining its drives in the early going. Though Tuel managed to convert a few third downs with accurate passes to wideouts Gabe Marks and Gino Simone, the Cougars failed to cross its own 40-yard line on all three of its possessions in the first quarter. It also didn’t help that the Stanford front seven was manhandling Washington State’s offensive line and bringing the heat on Tuel, who was sacked five times by four different Cardinal defenders in the first quarter alone.
But it was only a matter of time before Mike Leach’s air raid would inflict some damage.
After an inconsequential Stanford possession, the Cougars took a 7-3 lead in the early minutes of the second quarter when Dominique Williams, who finished with a game-high nine receptions for 100 yards, hauled in Tuel’s back-shoulder pass for a 3-yard touchdown, despite being interfered with. The score capped an 11-play, 88-yard drive that saw Tuel taking whatever the Stanford secondary was giving him by finding his targets on short passes beneath the coverage.
“We’re no stranger to Jeff Tuel,” said Ben Gardner, who recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. “We’ve seen him the past two years and he always seems to play well against us. That guy battles. He took some hits tonight and he got back up and kept fighting. He’s a heck of a quarterback. He’s a warrior.”
The Cardinal struck right back on its next drive to retake the lead as Nunes connected with a wide-open Jamal-Rashad Patterson for a 70-yard touchdown. Nunes was averaging less than a yard per pass attempt before the touchdown throw, which also ended up accounting for over half of his total passing production.
“I thought there were a couple times [Nunes] made good plays,” commented Shaw. “We still got our hands on a couple balls we should’ve caught, but he missed a couple throws we need to make.”
In closing out the first half, Tuel took advantage of the Cardinal’s soft coverage and engineered a field-goal-scoring drive to tie the game at 10 apiece. The Cougar quarterback converted a critical fourth-and-6 at the Stanford 40 before driving all the way down to the 6-yard line, where Andrew Furney hit a 24-yard field goal as time expired.
The Cardinal’s first possession of the third quarter proved to be its best drive of the game, a 13-play, 78-yard touchdown-scoring drive that took almost seven minutes—a vast improvement for Stanford after being out-possessed by over 12 minutes in the first half. Recording his first touchdown of the season and the first rushing touchdown of his career, fullback Ryan Hewitt punched it in on third-and-goal from the Cougars’ 1-yard line to give the Cardinal a 17-10 lead.
After stifling Washington State’s offense for the entire third quarter, it seemed as if Stanford had finally put the pesky Cougars away for good when free safety Ed Reynolds intercepted Tuel in the fourth quarter and took it to the house for a 25-yard touchdown. It was Reynolds’ fourth interception and second pick-six of the season, and the sophomore standout is now second in the nation in interception yardage.
“I just read the call that allowed me to cheat over there,” said Reynolds. “The quarterback just stared a little bit and had been playing mostly to that side all game, the free man side. I went, stole second and got one. For myself, it’s just keep going out and working on the little things to help this team get better.”
But the two-touchdown deficit did little to faze Washington State.
Tuel rattled off eight completions on the ensuing drive to put seven points on the board in a hurry, with Kristoff Williams’ 10-yard touchdown reception sealing the deal. Stanford proceeded to run down the clock as much as possible on its next possession. Nunes found Whitfield for a critical third-down conversion, but the Cougars’ defense locked down and forced the drive to stall near midfield.
“I’m not going to take anything away from those [Washington State] guys,” said Shaw. “Travis Long is probably one of my favorite guys in our conference that’s not on our team. That guy plays hard…he beat us a few times tonight.”
Long’s five tackles on the day didn’t do justice to the impact he had on the game—he consistently disrupted plays in the backfield and made critical stops on Taylor in the fourth quarter to give the Cougars a fighting chance.
Washington State got the ball back with 3:37 left in the game, needing a touchdown to send the game into overtime. Tuel methodically dished the ball to four different receivers and miraculously converted a fourth-and-21 to march the Cougars all the way down to the Stanford 9-yard line.
But a costly intentional grounding penalty took 10 seconds off the clock and moved Wazzu back 10 yards. On second-and-goal at the Stanford 19, Tuel dropped back and scanned for an open target in the end zone, but was gobbled up by defensive end Henry Anderson before he could unload. With no timeouts left, the Cougars could only watch the clock run down to zero as their comeback fell short.
“It definitely wasn’t the kind of game we wanted to play,” said Nunes. “Coach Shaw said it earlier: We can definitely play better. The defense did a lot of great things all night. Offensively, we have to get going, we have to be more efficient—get the chains moving on third down and get [the defense] a break.”
With Oregon State falling to Washington on Saturday night, the Cardinal is currently tied with the Beavers for second place in the Pac-12 North standings and controls its own postseason destiny.
Up next for Stanford is a road trip to Boulder, where the Cardinal hopes to take care of business against Colorado before its showdown with Oregon State in two weeks.
Contact George Chen at email@example.com.