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Football Round Table: Mike Leach and the Cougars

The Daily’s King Jemison, Julio Ballista, and Shan Reddy share their thoughts on the homecoming game

Senior running back Bryce Love has struggled this season, averaging only 4.0 yards per carry. Love will be back in action against a tough Washington State defense this weekend. (DAVID BERNAL/isiphotos.com)

The No. 24 Stanford Cardinal (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) is back in the AP rankings after falling out following their home loss to Utah. This week they take on No. 14 Washington State (6-1, 3-1) in their fifth home game of the season. The team faces an uphill battle against the Cougars’ head coach Mike Leach and his unconventional, yet successful offense, which gave a beating to the Oregon Ducks just last week. The Daily’s King Jemison, Julio Ballista and Shan Reddy share their thoughts on the unstoppable Cougar offensive, the recent history between the Cardinal and Washington State and the woes of the Stanford offense.

The Washington State offense has been…frankly unstoppable. They’re averaging a whopping 40.7 points per game, with two performances in which they scored more than 55 points. They’re also averaging nearly 500 yards of offense per game! How does the Stanford defense expect to fare against this indomitable unit?

King Jemison (KJ): Mike Leach always has one of the most unique and exciting offenses in the country, and this year it’s also one of the most productive. The incredible part is, Wazzu has the best offense in the Pac-12 despite being completely one-dimensional. Leach’s Air Raid system is an almost exclusively passing offense that only rarely runs the ball. In fact, they use short passes and screens as a substitute for their run game. The Cougars average over 400.7 yards per game through the air. Nobody else in the Pac-12 is over 300 ypg. Meanwhile, Wazzu rushes for just 72.6 ypg, worst in the Pac-12. Quarterback Gardner Minshew has to carry the offense every week, and he has proved up to the task. Minshew leads the conference in almost every passing category, including yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and is extremely accurate.

Suffice it to say, Stanford’s defense is expected to struggle against the Cougars. The Cardinal are second-to-last in the Pac-12 in passing defense, and they haven’t faced a passing attack nearly this good. Their only chance to slow down Wazzu is to generate pressure on Minshew. Stanford has 19 sacks on the season. Washington State has only surrendered five sacks all year. They have yet to face a team that can create enough havoc in the backfield to disrupt their offense. If Stanford can get to the quarterback, they could be the first to slow down the Cougars.

Julio Ballista (JB): Washington State has been impressive. Their offense reminds me of the 2007 New England Patriots, where deep, explosive passes are the norm and rushing is an afterthought. Their play screams confidence on all accounts, which as King mentioned, says a lot about Mike Leach and his willingness to lead his team in such a unique way.

The good news is: The team knows the game plan. The team knows exactly what Washington State will expect to do, so it allows for a deeper, more strategic game plan. Similar to how teams have played to Bryce Love – the Cardinal can play to Washington State’s pass.

The defensive line, especially in Utah, has been weak, allowing run after run. This may cease to be a concern, and a pass rush could take its place. This could be a reignition in the defensive line, which, if they can get some sacks, could push them to better play in the future.

Shan Reddy (SR): It’s no secret that Washington State is going to pass the football. The Cardinal secondary will be tested early and often, but they have the personnel to keep Minshew in check. Stanford defensive backs coach Duane Akina will be hard-pressed this week to roll out more diverse coverage and blitz packages than the Cardinal has called yet this season. Ultimately, if Akina can put his pass-rushers in positions to get pressure – whether that be with occasional zero coverages or blitzing defensive backs – the defense should be able to hold up.

 

Stanford has lost two straight games to the Washington State Cougars: a 2017 road loss on a final, miraculous, Luke Falk-orchestrated drive and a 2016 home stomp in which the No. 15 ranked Cardinal fell 42-16. Why have the Cougars been our recent kryptonite? Will this trend continue during homecoming weekend?

KJ: Mike Leach has Stanford’s number. His Air Raid offense creates matchup problems for Stanford, which generally has been stronger in the front seven defensively than in the secondary. Plus, since Wazzu developed a defense a couple seasons ago, Stanford has struggled to move the ball on the Cougars with their stingy rushing defense.

This Washington State team, improbably, might be the best of Leach’s tenure. It would not surprise me at all if the Cougars come out of Stanford Stadium with a huge Pac-12 North win. But the Cardinal are built differently this year, and that might allow them to pull off an upset.

Stanford’s cornerbacks are one of the strengths of the defense, highlighted by Paulson Adebo, who leads the country in passes defended. They can make life tough on these Washington State receivers. Stanford’s linebackers are athletic enough to play in coverage against running backs and tight ends. Though the Cardinal have been weak up front at times this year, they have usually managed to get pressure on the quarterback. And offensively, Stanford has no hope of relying on the run game, which is the second worst in the Pac-12. The Cardinal offense must rely on KJ Costello and these talented pass-catchers to win the game, and Costello might just be able to carve up the Washington State secondary like Oregon’s Justin Herbert did in the second half last week. Stanford plays more like a Mike Leach team this year, and that might just allow them to beat him for the first time in three years.

JB: Homecoming weekend, for alums, is a time where they get to see the Cardinal back in action, where they get to celebrate their pride for Nerd Nation and Stanford’s illustrious, consistent success in all aspects of academia, sports and the like.

Expect Stanford Stadium to be brimming with life – both new and old – this Saturday.

What does this mean? Expect the Cardinal to play with a fierce fire behind them. This is exactly what they need to pull off the upset. David Shaw is 6-1 all time in homecoming weekend games.

They know what they’re up against. They know their history with the Cougars, and they understand that every game is absolutely monumental in the Pac-12 race, where Washington seems to be getting better and better by the week.

As King alluded, the team has evolved in ways that can allow us to take this game. The pass rush has been fairly effective, and Costello has the talent to lead this team with an illustrious performance with the pass.

It’s hard to imagine the Cardinal being so ‘quiet’ as they’ve been to start the season. It feels like they’re on the fence – about to break out of their cage, find their identity, and play like the fierce, Pac-12 favorite they know they can be. The question is: When? Will it be this Saturday, in front our loving, talented alums? Or will they break out when it’s too late, and the Pac-12 race is all but Washington’s?

Let’s hope for the former. They have all the tools to do it.  

SR: As Julio said, this game may just be the crux of the Cardinal season – the defense will be seriously tested, and the offense will have to do its best to keep up with the FBS’ most productive offense. The crowd will be behind them, and the team is coming off a big win in Arizona in which the defense shone.

In a Pac-12 still very much up for grabs, Wazzu and Stanford are both on the rise, sporting strong passing attacks and defenses that bend but have not yet been broken. In many ways, we can expect to see a showdown between KJ Costello and Gardner Minshew, and two passing attacks that very well may have to carry their teams.

 

It felt like the Cardinal played reserved in their 20-13 win against Arizona State, with the offense doing just enough to win. In fact, it almost felt like the offense wouldn’t have succeeded without the three turnovers generated by the defense, two of which let the Cardinal put points on the board. These turnovers came after two games of zero defensive turnovers against Notre Dame and Utah. Was this an anomaly in last week’s matchup, or is there cause for concern that Stanford may be troubled in their ability to generate offense without good field position?

KJ: Stanford’s offensive troubles last week were nothing new. That’s what we’ve seen all year from the Cardinal, and in fact, last week’s performance was in some ways an encouraging outing from this struggling unit. Stanford, like Washington State, is utterly one-dimensional and reliant on the pass. Unlike Washington State, they haven’t fully embraced this identity nor can they. The Cardinal must continue to try running the ball because otherwise teams will just blitz Costello mercilessly and drop more of their defense into coverage. Until Stanford figures out a way to consistently run the ball, they will struggle to consistently produce offense regardless of field position or turnovers.

That being said, turnovers will be a big part of whether Stanford can score points on this stout Washington State defense. The Cougars have the third-ranked total defense in the Pac-12, and they’ve been particularly good against the pass, Stanford’s strength. If the Cardinal defense can create turnovers and give their offense good field position, Stanford should be able to capitalize. But I think it would be very difficult for the Cardinal to consistently drive the length of the field with this struggling offense against a very good defense. Turnovers will be key, as always.

JB: Generating offense has been a struggle for a large majority of the season – the turnovers that saved the team against Arizona State are no anomaly.

Think back to the Oregon game. The Pac-12 race would be completely different if CJ Verdell held onto the ball just slightly tighter. It is no surprise that the team’s offensive woes come from a lack of identity and drive.

When you think of the Stanford offense, what do you imagine? Do you imagine Bryce Love, breaking tackles and being the dynamic player we know him to be? Do you imagine Costello slinging shots downfield?

The team has consistently been neither of these. It is only when a spark ignites the offense where we see an identity come to life, explaining the struggles in Notre Dame and Utah.

The Cardinal need to find a way to push themselves with a newfound sense of motivation. Every drive needs to become a ‘turnover’ drive. They have all the pieces to do it, it just feels as if their spark is lacking.

SR: This game needs to see the Cardinal reinvigorate its run game, or go all in on the passing attack. If Love and Speights can’t keep their carries productive early on, the Wazzu defense will repeat what teams all season have done against the Cardinal – blitz Costello. He’s hung tough so far, but if the Cardinal protection scheme doesn’t hold up, we may see a repeat of the Utah game.

This game is Costello’s best opportunity to step up, take the reigns of the offense, and put the team on his back – with the home crowd behind him.

 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Julio Ballista at juliob ‘at’ stanford.edu and Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu

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