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King’s Keys: (Washington) State of the program

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When Stanford last missed a bowl game, George W. Bush was the President of the United States. Instagram and Snapchat did not exist. Current Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94 was a mere offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach under Jim Harbaugh. But now, the Cardinal are rapidly approaching a sobering reality they have not faced since 2008: a losing season. 

Saturday’s loss at Colorado crippled Stanford’s hopes for bowl eligibility. The Buffaloes were riding a five-game losing streak. They had not allowed fewer than 30 points all season. Colorado managed to snap both of those streaks with a 16-13 win over the Cardinal. The Stanford offense was pathetic. The Cardinal defense struggled to make stops when it counted. And now Stanford must face a Washington State team that has won three straight against the Cardinal. If Stanford loses again, the Cardinal will have to beat Cal and Notre Dame at home to reach .500. Even with a win on Saturday, bowl eligibility seems far from certain with Cal and Notre Dame trending upwards. The outcome looks bleak for Stanford’s 2019 season and beyond. 

But snapping the losing streak with a win over Wazzu could give the Cardinal the momentum they need to maintain their Big Game dominance and finish the season on a positive note heading into 2020. Though a 6-6 season would be the worst of the David Shaw era, reaching an 11th straight bowl game should still mean something to this program that missed seven straight bowl games in the early 2000s. 

Shaw and his staff are understandably proud of the consistent program they have built over the last decade. Saturday’s game will test that program in a far different way than any Rose Bowl win or Pac-12 Championship ever could. Every program has down seasons. But the great programs never let those down seasons spiral into disasters and losing records. Stanford is teetering on the edge of a disastrous season. Here’s three keys to a Cardinal win that would get the program back on track. 

1) Hit the big plays

In the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Stanford’s offense relied heavily on explosive plays. In 2017, it was Bryce Love’s ’19 FBS-record 13 rushes of 50 or more yards. Last season, it was current senior quarterback K.J. Costello leading the Pac-12 in passing yards per attempt. But this year, the Cardinal offense has been frustratingly pedestrian. Stanford’s offense did not generate many of Shaw’s patented run-heavy long drives in 2017 and 2018, but they made up for it with big plays. This season, they have struggled to do either. However, the loss to Colorado proved that Stanford still has explosive play potential, and that may be the only way that the Cardinal can put up points against Washington State on the road. 

Stanford’s lone touchdown last Saturday came on a 79-yard catch-and-run from Costello to sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko. The 6’4” wideout possesses freakish athleticism for a player of his size, and Fehoko has flashed his big-play ability with a ridiculous 29.7 yards per catch average. The Cardinal cannot count on a 79-yard touchdown every game, but Fehoko, along with sophomore wideout Michael Wilson and junior receiver Osiris St. Brown, have the serious speed required to break a big one. In the ground game, freshmen running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat have also hinted at their explosiveness, and senior running back Cameron Scarlett busted a 45-yarder earlier in the season against Oregon State. Whether on the ground or through the air, Stanford must hit on some long plays to jumpstart the offense. 

Stanford does not have a sufficiently competent offense to go on the road and grind out long scoring drives. There is a reason why the Cardinal are ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 109th nationally in points per game. But, Stanford is still blessed with a ton of offensive talent. Any one of those players can produce explosive plays. Against a Washington State offense that will surely put up big points, that may be Stanford’s only chance to keep up with the Cougars. 

2) The return of “bend, don’t break”

Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has earned the reputation of producing defenses that might give up plenty of yards but rarely let opposing offenses reach the end-zone. The 2018 defense kept up that “bend, don’t break” identity. The Cardinal ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in total yards per game allowed. Yet somehow, that same Stanford defense was third in the conference in scoring defense. 

This season, the Cardinal have not been so adept at bending but not breaking. Stanford is sixth in the conference for both total and scoring defense. A big reason why? The Cardinal are not creating turnovers and buckling down in the red zone like Anderson’s defenses usually do. Stanford sits at 10th in the conference in takeaways and ninth in red zone defense. 

Washington State will move the ball on Saturday. The Cougar’s offense leads the country in passing yards per game. They rank first in the Pac-12 and seventh nationally in total offense. But Wazzu does possess a really bad habit of giving the ball away. The Cougars have coughed up 15 turnovers this season, second-most in the Pac-12. If Stanford can force Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon into a few mistakes, the Cardinal defense will have a chance to slow down the ultra-efficient Cougars attack. It is going to take a classic Anderson “bend, don’t break” performance for Stanford to snap the streak in Pullman. 

3) Program pride

Stanford is reeling. The five losses this season are already tied for the most in the David Shaw era. There is not a remotely easy win left on the schedule. This truly could spiral into Stanford’s worst season since Jim Harbaugh’s debut in 2007. Although the Cardinal are light-years removed from the Pac-12 Championship or College Football Playoff discussion, they must grasp the gravity of avoiding a total collapse. Stanford will enter Saturday’s game as a double-digit underdog against a Washington State team that has only one Pac-12 win and an identical overall record to the Cardinal. That is how little oddsmakers and the college football media think of Stanford in 2019. A win over Wazzu would not change everything, but it would dramatically change the perception of Stanford’s program trajectory. 

The Cardinal are probably a couple of key pieces and a sprinkle of injury luck away from contending for a conference championship in 2020. They may also be one or two seasons away from regressing into pre-Harbaugh mediocrity. Saturday’s game will hint at which reality is closer to fruition in Stanford’s future. 

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