For fourth time this season, Stanford will be without senior quarterback K.J. Costello. After suffering an injury during Saturday’s loss at Colorado, Costello is highly doubtful for Saturday’s contest against Washington State. In his absence, junior Davis Mills will be tasked with starting under center.
“We go from triage to gameplan,” Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94 said this week.
According to Shaw, who is staring down his first losing season at the helm, 25 players have missed significant playing time due to injuries. With that in mind, Stanford (4-5, 3-4 Pac-12) heads to Pullman for a date with the nation’s top passing offense, Washington State’s (4-4, 1-5 Pac-12) Air Raid. For the past three seasons, the Cougars have had the Cardinal’s number.
Mills, who is returning from an injury suffered during the upset win against Washington, has been Stanford’s most efficient passer this season, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and one interception. In his three full games as the starter — a loss at USC, road win against Oregon State and upset victory over Washington — Mills completed 67% of his passes and averaged 258.3 yards per game.
“[Mills is] a very even-keeled human being but he’s also motivated and he also enjoys it,” Shaw said. “It’s been fun watching him go from being the quarterback that was a young guy, kind of first time starter, to now he’s the quarterback and running the show.”
Just as the defense seemed poised to be returning depth, with senior inside linebacker Curtis Robinson returning to practice this week, Stanford’s secondary began to hemorrhage, first with the news that junior cornerback Paulson Adebo will miss several weeks and now with the uncertainty surrounding senior safety Malik Antoine.
At cornerback, either senior Obi Eboh will return to the starting lineup or freshman Zahran Manley will make his first career start. Shaw named two new linebackers, freshman Tristan Sinclair and sophomore Tangaloa Kaufusi, who appeared on the depth chart this week when, one month prior, their role was on the scout team.
Ironically, the offensive line is one of the more stable positions, with the same five players likely to start for the fourth consecutive week. Junior center Drew Dalman and junior right tackle Foster Sarell continue to anchor a group relying upon the contributions of three true freshmen, left tackle Walter Rouse, left guard Barrett Miller and right guard Jake Hornibrook.
“Our guys have grown a ton up front,” Shaw said. “We’re much better in protection than we were probably three games ago, but there’s still two or three plays that are tough.”
“I feel really comfortable having Jake next to me and having Barrett and Walter on the other side,” Sarell said. “It’s not going to be perfect but what we’ve got right now has done a good job.”
Washington State’s offense leads the nation in passing yards per game with 433.1. The group also ranks seventh in total offense with 510.9 yards per game and tenth in scoring at 39.8 points per game. Quarterback Anthony Gordon leads the nation in passing and is throwing to three Biletnikoff award finalists, between Brandon Arconado, Dezmon Patmon and Easop Winston Jr. Saturday may see a repeat offensive showing from last year, when Gardner Minshew, now quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, completed 40 of 50 passes en route to a 41-38 victory against the Cardinal.
“It’s probably the most hectic preparation week in the whole season, for the DBs specifically,” said junior safety Stuart Head. “We like to invite that challenge for ourselves — they always have the leading passer in the country and a great group of receivers. We know we can affect the game in a positive way if we’re prepared and ready on Saturday.”
Head is another player returning from injury. After missing the entirety of spring practice, he worked his way into the rotation in the offseason, only to see his hopes dashed in practice the week leading up to the opener against Northwestern. Now, Head will be making his fourth straight start in his sixth straight appearance.
Washington State running back Max Borghi, whose 10 total touchdowns rank fourth in the conference and sit in seventh with 112.8 all-purpose yards per game, poses another concern for the Cardinal defense. Borghi is a threat in the passing game, where he leads all running backs nationally with 52 receptions and is the only Power-5 player to top 550 rush yards and 400 receiving yards.
Stanford lost a heartbreaker at Colorado on a field goal as time expired. Between sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko’s near toe-tap touchdown grab, a missed field goal and an attempt to block a field goal, the Cardinal were within striking distance.
“The difference between winning and losing is being on the wrong side of those inches,” Shaw said.
A similar story transpired in Stanford Stadium last season, when a field goal with 19 seconds remaining completed a 14-point comeback for the Cougars. This year, Wazzu will play in front of the home fans inside of Martin Stadium, where they are 3-1 this season and 16-2 over the past three.
“Our team and Washington State, the best is still really good,” Shaw said. “It’s about which team can be at their best for the longest time on Saturday, and be at their best when it counts the most in the fourth quarter.”