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Football roundtable: What to do with Wazzu

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Stanford lost to a team on a five-game losing streak in Colorado. Washington State was halted by a Cal team with four consecutive losses. After the game, Wazzu head coach Mike Leach reportedly called his players “frauds” after the game, laying into his team for half an hour before making himself available for a press conference. Although there are no reports of Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94 doing the same, the regression of Leach’s squad was equally as applicable to the Cardinal. The Daily’s King Jemison, Shan Reddy and Daniel Martinez-Krams talk offensive game plan, the nation’s best pass offense and hopes for the season. 

Last year’s loss to Washington State was arguably the offense’s best performance of the season. Shaw made a concerted effort to air the ball out, and, for the most part, it paid off. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello threw for 323 yards, completed 34-of-43 attempts and tossed four touchdowns. The game plan was an obvious antithesis to that of 2017’s 24-21 loss, in which Costello went 9-for-20 for a paltry 105 yards and an interception. Which game plan does Stanford pack for the road?

King Jemison (KJ): Two years ago, Stanford played in freezing snow and frigid temperatures in Pullman. Those conditions hamstrung Costello and the Cardinal passing attack from kickoff, but at that point, Stanford still had a competent running game to lean on. Now, weather is the least of Stanford’s worries, although Saturday’s forecast shows sunshine and temperatures in the high 40s. Stanford does not appear to have an explosive passing offense nor an efficient rushing offense in 2019. The Cardinal rank 11th in the Pac-12 and 105th nationally in total offense. Stanford averages just 21.6 points per game. Some games, the passing attack is slightly more efficient. In other games, the ground game carries the offensive load. But Stanford’s offensive game plan against Washington State is simple: create big plays. The lone Cardinal touchdown last Saturday came on a 79-yard catch and run from Costello to Simi Fehoko. Although Washington State’s defense has struggled this season, Stanford’s offense is not good enough to sustain drives on the road. If the Cardinal are going to put up points, it has to come on explosive plays. Look for lots of deep shots to Fehoko and Michael Wilson. Or maybe running backs Austin Jones, Nathaniel Peat or Cameron Scarlett can break one on the ground. Either way, Stanford’s offense will be big play or bust. 

Shan Reddy (SR): Like King said, the Stanford offense has been terrible — to say the least — this season. Meanwhile, Washington State boasts an offense that ranks No. 1 not only in the Pac-12, but in all of college football. Last season’s showing from the Cardinal neared the kind of passing efficiency that the team is going to need to have to keep pace, and even then it wasn’t enough. This year, Costello is going to have to be the guy. He’s going to have to compete with Wazzu quarterback Anthony Gordon like he did with now Jacksonville Jaguars backup Gardner Minshew last year. Without a season-high performance from Costello, Stanford will fall in this game, and they’ll fall quickly and precipitously.

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Listed on the depth chart behind Cameron Scarlett are freshmen Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. Stanford’s explosive freshmen have been one of the high points of this season. Jones’ run in the wildcat against UCF was the lone positive from the trip to the Sunshine State. Peat is averaging more yards per carry (7.1) than per game (5.56). I just want to see something fun. I want to see more of Simi Fehoko. I want to see more of the sophomore from Simi Valley, Michael Wilson. The team talked before the season about lofty goals, a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl visit among them. Those goals are so far in the rearview mirror that it is laughable. Open up the playbook and see what happens. Let the kids get hot. 

Another year, another top-ranked Washington State passing offense. Their 433.1 yards per game blow Stanford’s 229.3 per game out of the water, but they also protect their quarterback. Stanford’s defense struggles when the opposing quarterback has time to throw, but Wazzu’s 1.11 sacks allowed per game is the ninth-lowest total in the nation and its 3.22 tackles for loss allowed is the fourth best. With the news that cornerback Paulson Adebo is out for this week and free safety Malik Antoine is questionable, how does Stanford go about slowing down Washington’s high-octane offense?

KJ: Washington State never allows many sacks because Mike Leach does a masterful job of getting the ball out of his quarterback’s hands quickly. The Cougars’ Air Raid attack relies on short passes and creative route-running. Stanford’s defense always struggles with Washington State because the Cougars run an offense that is almost the complete antithesis of the Cardinal. Now, without their top cornerback and possibly their top safety, the job gets even harder for the Cardinal secondary. Stanford absolutely has to get pressure on Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon. Stanford averages 2.33 sacks per game, good for sixth in the Pac-12. Outside, linebacker Casey Toohill is tied for third in the conference with six sacks. Toohill and the Cardinal front seven must have a big day on Saturday. When Stanford gets pressure on the quarterback, this defense performs well. Although Washington State’s dominant offensive line and quick-strike attack will likely prevent the Cardinal from racking up sacks, Stanford’s front seven can still affect Gordon by getting in the backfield quickly and disrupting his timing. 

SR: As King said, the Mike Leach Air Raid offense is designed to get the ball out fast and push the ball down the field through the air on medium and deep routes. Stanford’s defense is simply not built to cover those kinds of concepts. Having Adebo would have been huge — he could have slowed down Wazzu’s receivers’ releases off the line to give the front seven more time to pressure the quarterback — but without him and Antoine, the talent in the Stanford secondary is sparse. The only way Stanford’s defense has a chance of slowing down Anthony Gordon is to hit him. However, I’m not confident that there’s enough talent on the Cardinal defensive line to do that while rushing a base four. Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is going to have to throw in creative blitz packages to disrupt Gordon’s rhythm.

DMK: Stanford, most likely, does not slow down the Cougars offense. Without All-American Adebo, captain Antoine and potentially inside linebacker Curtis Robinson, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is down to his reserves. Pressure is a good first start, and the rotation of options certainly has helped the unit improve this season, but Washington State has the talent to take the top off, and that is scary. Wazzu has three players averaging more than 100 all-purpose yards per game and Stanford simply does not have the depth to focus on locking down one top option, as we saw against Colorado with Laviska Shenault Jr., much less three. Much like on offense, Stanford’s defense is now full of freshman like Kyu Blu Kelly and Tristan Sinclair who are incredible athletes but are prone to rookie mistakes. Stanford will need its players to play.

For ten straight seasons, Stanford has traveled to a bowl game, the longest-running streak in the conference. Now, with three games to play, Stanford finds itself in need of two wins. Do the Cardinal pull it out? Where do the wins come from? Is there any upside to cutting the season short and avoiding further injury?

KJ: Stanford’s hopes for bowl eligibility are fading fast. Frankly, I do not see the Cardinal reaching a bowl game this season. With Stanford’s beat-up secondary and woeful offense, a road game at Washington State is a tough ask. Now that Cal is likely getting Chase Garbers back, the Golden Bears are probably better than Stanford defensively and offensively. It feels like Stanford’s nine-year Big Game winning streak comes to an end this year. And Notre Dame is a top-20 team who will likely need a win on the Farm to punch their ticket to a major bowl game. The Irish will be the best team Stanford has played all season. Seems like another loss as well. I do think Stanford will win one of those three games, but not two. That would leave the Cardinal with a losing record for the first time since 2008. However, I believe that missing a bowl game could lead to some positive changes on the Farm. Shaw is a notoriously conservative coach. But a losing record would likely lead to some much-needed changes in the Cardinal offensive philosophy. Plus, the extra bowl practices that are usually so helpful would not mean much for the Cardinal, since Stanford can hardly run practice already with just six offensive linemen available. I hope the Cardinal get to six wins. But I do not think it will happen, and that might not be a bad thing for Stanford football’s future. 

SR: Currently standing at 4-5, this year’s Stanford football team will end the season with a 4-8 record, its worst season record since 2007, Jim Harbaugh’s first year at the Farm. The three remaining games on Stanford’s slate feature opponents that all outmatch the Cardinal, and I don’t see Stanford putting up more than 40 points in the next three games combined. Play’s been poor all around, and as K.J. Costello closes out his Stanford career, we can only hope that next season will bring some consistency at the quarterback position and depth along the offensive line as the team gets healthy this offseason. Let’s not forget that this season has seen the loss of the team’s best offensive lineman in junior tackle Walker Little and best defensive player in Adebo to injury, as well as the starting of three different quarterbacks over the course of the year. It’s been a rollercoaster, but there’s certainly a path forward.

DMK: The worrying aspect of a losing season is losing recruits. Stanford seems to be doing fine in that department. Stanford already has an empty stadium, so there is no need to worry about losing fans. As King said, the potential loss of extra practices is null and void without enough players to practice. For the players, the loss of bowl game swag and a holiday vacation is disappointing. For Cardinal faithful, the only remaining sliver to hold on to is a potential Big Game win. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu and Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a desk editor in the sports section. He is originally from Berkeley, California. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Shan Reddy '22 is The Daily's Financial Officer, Business Team Director and a desk editor for the sports section covering Stanford football and tennis. Contact him at rsreddy@stanford.edu.