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King’s Keys: Playing for the Pac-12

The Daily’s King Jemison gives his thoughts on the Cardinal’s chances in their upcoming matchup against No. 14 Washington State

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No. 24 Stanford football (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) got the win they needed last week at Arizona State. The Cardinal now control their own destiny in the Pac-12 North and will have a chance to play for the Rose Bowl if they win out. Every Pac-12 showdown is massive at this point because the North is essentially a four-team race between Stanford, No. 19 Oregon, No. 15 Washington and No. 14 Washington State. Every team except Oregon has just one conference loss, so any Pac-12 defeat would drop the Cardinal off the pace and make it nearly impossible for them to still reach the conference championship game. Every game is important, but the next two weeks are just a little bigger.

Stanford will play Washington State at home tomorrow and then face Washington on the road the following Saturday. If Stanford wins both games, it will win the Pac-12 North. The Cardinal have already beaten Oregon. If they beat the two Washington schools in consecutive weeks, then they will own the tiebreaker over all three other North contenders and could even afford one more conference loss over a relatively easy stretch of Pac-12 bottom feeders, as Stanford finishes the year with Oregon State at home and Cal and UCLA on the road. Suffice it to say, win the next two weeks, and the Cardinal can coast to the conference championship. But of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Most national pundits asserted that Wazzu’s huge home win last week over Oregon gives them control in the Pac-12 North. Stanford is trying to take back their rightful place as the Kings of the North this week. The Cougars have been the most impressive team in the Pac-12 so far this year and have beaten the Cardinal each of the last two seasons. Here’re three keys to what would be a streak-breaking, landscape-altering home victory for Stanford this Saturday.

 

1. Get pressure on Gardner Minshew.

Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew has been nothing short of fantastic this season. The grad transfer from East Carolina decommitted from Alabama and switched to Wazzu at the last second thanks to head coach Mike Leach’s promise that he would lead the nation in passing. Sure enough, through seven games, Minshew is leading the nation with an average of 392.1 passing yards per game. He’s also fifth in touchdowns and 10th in completion percentage, putting him atop the Pac-12 in all three categories. Minshew has been nearly unstoppable, and Stanford looks like another favorable matchup for him and Leach’s Air Raid offense.

Despite having a pretty solid secondary, the Cardinal defense has struggled against the pass this year. According to Pro Football Focus, three of Stanford’s five highest-graded defenders this season are in the secondary (safety Malik Antoine, plus cornerbacks Paulson Adebo and Alijah Holder), and yet the Cardinal have the second-worst passing defense in the Pac-12 statistically, surrendering 252.1 yards per game through the air. The reason for that discrepancy between secondary talent and passing defense performance? The lack of a pass rush.

Stanford has managed to rack up 19 sacks on the season, tied for third in the Pac-12, but on a down-to-down basis, they have not been able to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. When defensive coordinator Lance Anderson decides to rush three and drop eight into coverage, the opposing QB has all day to throw because the defensive line is simply not talented enough to dominate a game on their own.

That has to change if Stanford is going to slow down Minshew on Saturday. The Washington State offensive line has been dominant all year. Despite having the most pass attempts in the country (375 total), they’ve only surrendered five sacks. Minshew does an excellent job getting the ball out of his hands quickly to complement that strong offensive line, but sooner or later somebody has to get enough pressure on him to disrupt this seemingly unstoppable offense. Could Stanford be the one to do it? Their chances look grim with key pass rusher Joey Alfieri out after suffering an injury early in the Arizona State game, but they better, or else Minshew can quickly spoil Homecoming Weekend on the Farm.

 

2. Hit the big plays

Washington State’s defense has been solid all year. They were expected to take a step back with famed coordinator Alex Grinch heading to Ohio State and defensive line monster Hercules Mata’afa heading to the NFL. Instead, they’ve been a top-20 defense in the FBS, currently sitting 19th nationally in total defense. The Cougars have been particularly stingy against the pass, as they’re giving up just 180 yards per game through the air. They don’t necessarily have one star. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer leads the team in tackles and longevity since he’s literally in his sixth year at Wazzu thanks to medical redshirt. But despite not having an abundance of NFL talent, they’re good at all three levels and they get to the quarterback, as the Cougars lead the Pac-12 with 21 sacks. Stanford can’t expect to consistently drive the length of the field with short yardage. The one way the Cardinal can move the ball? Big plays.

In Wazzu’s one loss this season to USC in the Coliseum, the Trojans put up 39 points. They had seven plays of over 20 yards and two plays of at least 50 yards. The JT Daniels-led offense that Stanford saw grind to a halt on the Farm wasn’t able to consistently move the ball up and down the field, but they hit enough big plays to score points. Oregon State also ripped off a series of big plays en route to scoring 37 on the Cougars (Wazzu won that game 56-37). Though this defense has been excellent on a down-to-down basis, they’ve given up enough explosive plays to give Stanford hope that they can do the same.

After all, big plays is what the Cardinal offense is made of. KJ Costello has feasted on the deep ball the last two seasons, and with future NFL pass-catchers in JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Kaden Smith, Colby Parkinson and Trenton Irwin (yes, I said it) around to pull in those deep balls, Stanford’s offense has never been short on big plays. It’s efficiency that the Cardinal are lacking, but apparently against Washington State, that’s not an issue. This may be one of the only good defenses in the country against whom Stanford’s feast-or-famine offense is actually an advantage. Regardless, the Cardinal must hit big plays in order to score on the Cougars.

 

3. Create the letdown.

Any expert picking Stanford to win on Saturday has cited the letdown factor for Washington State. This game has all the ingredients of a tasty letdown sandwich. The city of Pullman had to declare a state of emergency last week due to the unprecedented number of people pouring in for College Gameday. The party in Pullman was rocking from five a.m. on Saturday to 5 a.m. on Sunday (or some other ungodly hour), and the show on the field was pretty lit too. The Cougars 34-20 victory over Oregon was one of the biggest wins in school history, and it propelled them to the top of the Pac-12 North standings. After such an emotional week and win, Wazzu could be sleepwalking into Saturday’s game, and a sleepy afternoon crowd in Stanford Stadium won’t help wake them up. But for this whole letdown factor to actually play into Stanford’s favor, they have to bring the energy themselves.

Much has been made of Stanford’s slow starts this season, which have allowed six of seven Cardinal opponents to score first. Stanford doesn’t seem to get into a rhythm until they’re already trailing on the scoreboard, which certainly wouldn’t create prime conditions for an opponent letdown. More often than not, Stanford seems to be the team sleepwalking into a game. If the Cardinal are going to take advantage of a Washington State letdown, they have to be ready and excited for this game themselves. That means getting off to good start and (if this is even possible) scoring first to build up an early lead. If Stanford can finally get that first score, they might just watch the Cougars eat that big letdown sandwich and hand the Cardinal a huge Pac-12 North win.

Before the season, this home game against Washington State looked like a guaranteed Stanford victory. Now, it looks like the Cougars might be the toughest remaining opponent on the Cardinal schedule. If Stanford can get this Homecoming victory, they will stay on track for a Rose Bowl appearance despite the struggles against Notre Dame and Utah. With a loss, the Cardinal hopes for a Pac-12 Championship would be nearly finished. Costello vs. Minshew. Shaw vs. Leach. In an underrated rivalry between Stanford and Washington State, this might be the biggest meeting ever.

 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.