Saturday is Homecoming for the No. 24 ranked Stanford football (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12), who return to the Farm for the first time since Oct. 6 to take on No. 14 Washington State (6-1, 3-1) in a top-25 showdown to determine control of the Pac-12 North.
The Cardinal will line up against a Washington State offense averaging an absurd 40.7 points per game on 473.3 yards, with both marks first in the conference. In just his first year in head coach Mike Leach’s system, graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew has thrown for 392.1 yards per game to lead the nation and pace the Pac-12 by over 100 yards. The beneficiaries of that passing prowess are wide receivers Easop Winston Jr. and Tay Martin, who are tied for second in the conference with six touchdowns a piece. And, while Washington State is only averaging 72.6 rushing yards per game – ahead of only Stanford in the Pac-12 – they have scored at least one rushing touchdown in every game.
The Cougars’ air raid offense has set off sirens for the Cardinal defense. For head coach David Shaw, “Every guy that is going to step on the field [for Washington State] is a burden.” In his opinion, this owes to “the appearance of complexity, the variety of formations, the speed with which they go, the added shifts and motions [and] all the crossing routes from different combinations” that the Washington State offense runs.
One of the eccentricities of the Cougar offense is a formation affectionately known as “Big Gulp,” in which a wide receiver lines up as the center, Minshew is off-center and a receiver or back is brought in motion. After extensive film study, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is prepared for the alignment: “Hopefully we have some good plans there.” More generally, he noted that the Washington State offense has “seen every defense out there imaginable, every coverage they know where to go with the ball, they do a great job of executing.”
He says, “For us, we have to find a way to put a little pressure on that quarterback, and try to mix and disguise coverages to slow that progression down a little bit.”
As Coach Shaw said, “Our guys have to be locked in every single play. If one guy is out of position, it can be an explosive play.”
On the other hand, the Stanford defense may be able to exploit Minshew’s tendency to turn the ball over. After two interceptions last week, the Cardinal have a total of seven on the season. Stanford has won each game in which they have generated a turnover, and lost the only two when they did not. “That’s huge,” said Anderson about winning the turnover battle. “The two previous weeks where we really struggled, we lost the turnover battle big.”
If the Cardinal defense is able to once again invigorate their offense and garner momentum with turnovers, much of that will owe to the stellar defense of sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo. Although Adebo is coming off a game in which he secured his first career interception and repeatedly locked up future first round draft choice N’Keal Harry in press coverage, his defensive coordinator was not surprised. “That’s what we saw all spring long. It’s great for him to deliver like we thought he would be able play.”
Even while leading the nation in pass breakups, Adebo maintains the focus on team goals. “[The interception] was kind of cool,” he admitted. “I was just happy we got the win.”
While it is unlikely that the Cardinal will unleash an air raid of their own, it is not for a lack of weapons. The connection between junior quarterback KJ Costello and senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside is as dominant as ever after the pair combined seven times for another touchdown and 91 yards last week. Senior wide receiver Trenton Irwin and junior tight end Kaden Smith each have over 350 yards receiving this season while sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson has hauled in three touchdowns.
On the ground, the Cardinal have shown they possess three talented backs. Senior running back and Senior CLASS award finalist Bryce Love is the marquee name among the group, but junior Trevor Speights and senior Cameron Scarlett are crucial as Love’s touches are limited while he recovers from injury. Scarlett led all three backs in rushing yards against the Sun Devils and is now tied for the team lead in rushing scores for the season. “We always talk about competing to play,” said offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard, alluding to a running back by committee. “Whoever looks best at it during the week will get into the game.”
An injured offensive line may once again be without junior offensive guard Nate Herbig as they contend with a Cougar defense that tops in the conference with 21 sacks this season. The Wazzu defense relies on speed, and as a testament to their versatility, 12 different players have recorded at least one sack. “I’ve seen the nicknames,” said Pritchard. “It’s a speed defense.”
Nevertheless, the Cardinal have made changes in practice to address issues on the offensive line, running more one-on-one and good-on-good drills, and to confront problems specific to Washington State’s speed, facing a scout team playing at a higher tempo. Scarlett took notice of the offensive lines efforts that propelled him to his highest rushing total of the season last game. “They opened up some good holes for me.” So did their head coach, as Shaw saw improvement in the trenches on both sides of the ball. “We played better on the offensive line, we played better on the defensive line.”
Pritchard mentioned that Shaw “asks for progress, not perfection.” When the Cougars come to town looking to defeat Stanford for the third straight year, solidify their stranglehold on the North and spoil Homecoming, the Cardinal will find out soon after the 4 p.m. kickoff whether that progress is enough.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.