With USC, UCLA, Oregon and ASU behind us, it feels like the most challenging stretch of the Stanford football season is finally over. But the Cardinal have not come out unscathed. They picked up three losses and multiple injuries — most notably, a lower-leg injury to senior wide receiver Brycen Tremayne, a core piece of the offense for the opening five weeks.
For the first time since Sept. 18, Stanford (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) faces an unranked opponent — Washington State (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12). Looking at the schools’ records alone, WSU and Stanford appear evenly matched, but Wazzu has not faced nearly the level of competition that the Cardinal have — the Cougars opened the season with Utah State and Portland State at home.
Due to an abbreviated schedule during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two teams did not play one another last season. Thus, Stanford and Washington State have not faced each other since Nov. 16 in Pullman, and the Cardinal have lost the last four consecutive games in the series — Stanford has not beaten Wazzu since 2015 (i.e. before anyone on the current roster was enrolled in Palo Alto).
Noah Maltzman, Zach Zafran, Ells Boone and Drew Silva discuss the Cardinal run game, quarterbacks and score lines.
Cybele Zhang [CZ]: Last week, the Cougars gave up 300+ rushing yards to the Beavers. Can the Stanford offense reestablish their run game after a dismal rushing performance at ASU, where junior RBs Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones recorded only 32 and 13 total rushing yards, respectively.
Noah Maltzman [NM]: There is a good chance that the Cardinal re-establish the run. Jake Dickert’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme does not cover the run well — as seen by OSU having two 100+ rushers, each averaging over eight yards per attempt. Having two quality running backs like Peat and Jones should work well against Dickert’s defense, but I would not be too confident just yet. Stanford’s offensive line played abysmally against ASU, only letting the Cardinal’s backs rush for 20 total yards with a terrible average of 0.7 yards per carry. It is too soon to say confidently whether Stanford’s rush game will bounce back, but if there is ever an opportunity this season, Wazzu may be it.
Zach Zafran [ZZ]: Historically, the identity of a David Shaw football team has been characterized by dominating the trenches. However, the days of lining up with eight offensive linemen and fighting for yards up the middle are behind us. While the Cardinal will be facing off against a Washington State defense that has shown little ability to contain the run in recent weeks, giving up 212 yards on the ground to Utah three weeks ago and over 300 to Oregon State last week, I’m still left with doubts that the Stanford offense will be able to get the run game going this week. The Cardinal are dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game by a decent margin (98 yards per game, compared to second-to-last-Arizona’s 112.4). But if there ever was a time to get the Stanford run game going, this would be the time.
Ells Boone [EB]: It sure would be a welcome sign for Stanford fans if the Cardinal can reestablish the run game. That’s been the biggest weakness for the team this season, and the unit just has not been able to fully get going this year. That is not the fault of the running backs, however, as the offensive line has taken a significant step back from last season. Washington State really does struggle with run defense though, so this could be David Shaw’s chance to reignite the run game. A strong rushing attack will only open the field up more for sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee.
Drew Silva [DS]: Although the Cardinal are the only Pac-12 team to average less than 100 rushing yards per game, there is not much to be scared of in the Washington State run defense. Wazzu’s opponents are averaging almost 170 yards per game on the ground, compared to the 117.7 Arizona State allows. We’ve seen Peat and Jones put up big numbers before, and a solid performance from the offensive line should allow them to showcase their skills and reestablish the run.
CZ: Pro: WSU’s QB Jayden de Laura is not a mobile quarterback — he actually averaged -4 yards per carry last week. Con: He has passed for 300+ yards multiple times this season. Will the Cardinal defense be able to stop him and the Wazzu PRO? How does de Laura stack up compared to the other quarterback talent Stanford has already seen this season?
NM: Well, Stanford needs to cover the pass, plain and simple. The Cardinal have an okay record against the pass, allowing 100 completions on 174 total attempts this season for 6.49 yards per catch. Will Wazzu abuse this? Absolutely. Look for pressure on the secondary, specifically on the corners. However, despite de Laura’s success in the passing game, Stanford should not expect much more in the rushing department, considering his 71 rush yards this season. In sum, watch out for the Cardinal secondary against de Laura.
ZZ: Stanford’s kryptonite this year has been the mobile quarterback. In the Cardinal’s three losses this year, they’ve given up five rushing touchdowns to opposing teams’ quarterbacks. Fortunately, this won’t be a major point of concern heading into Saturday’s matchup given the WSU personnel. Stanford’s defense has shown their ability to dominate for long stretches of time throughout the year, especially in the passing game. With the exception of an exceptional performance from UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, opposing quarterbacks have put up pedestrian numbers, throwing for an average of only 146.5 yards per game. Although de Laura’s pocket presence compares well to other foes Stanford has faced this season, I like this matchup for the Cardinal defense.
EB: Despite his impressive yardage numbers, de Laura is a step down in caliber from some of the other quarterbacks Stanford has faced this season like Kedon Slovis, Jayden Daniels, and DTR. As Cybele says, de Laura is not that mobile and his numbers are perhaps inflated given the pass-heavy run and shoot offense the Cougars employ. That does not mean though that de Laura does not pose a threat to Lance Anderson’s unit. He is very capable of doing damage against Stanford’s secondary and the defense will need to come prepared.
CZ: Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee threw his first career interception — well, first three — last weekend. Although not entirely his fault, should this stat and its implications be concerning to Cardinal fans? On the other side, de Laura has had at least one interception for the last four games. Can junior corner Kyu Blu Kelly, freshman corner Jimmy Wyrick, or any other Stanford player for that matter pick him off?
NM: Every young quarterback goes through their ups and downs. Despite his “Mormon Magic,” McKee is no different. In fact, having the three interceptions last week may prove to be better for McKee in the long run. Facing adversity humbles young QBs. It is reasonable that Cardinal fans are worried, but this isn’t what the Cardinal should be worried about, considering two out of his three interceptions were really not his fault. Looking to the other side of the ball, Stanford’s secondary should have an easier time in Pullman than in Tempe. Unlike ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels, Wazzu quarterback Jayden de Laura is not mobile, meaning that the secondary (mainly the linebacking group) is not as pressured by the threat of a run as they were against the Sun Devils. However, there is a good chance for the Cardinal secondary to pick him off; with Kyu Blu Kelly tied for fourth in the Pac 12 with two picks, and sixth year linebacker Gabe Reid and freshman cornerback Jimmy Wyrick each having one, it is conceivable that de Laura will be intercepted.
ZZ: While three turnovers in the air hurts, two of them were simply the result of incredible plays from the secondary. Regardless, I would not look at that statistic with any fear. The Cardinal need to get the ball rolling on offense and will likely begin to lean more and more on the passing game as McKee continues to gain experience under center. It’s not the interceptions that I’m keeping my eye out for but instead how this team will respond to those mistakes moving forward. I’m optimistic that interceptions are just a part of the learning curve, and I have liked everything else I see from the sophomore stud. On the other side of the ball, I expect the Stanford secondary to have a field day. Even if they don’t manage to intercept de Laura, they surely will cause trouble. Kelly leads the Pac-12 in passes defended with seven, and Wyrick is not far behind, tied for fifth with four on the season.
EB: Personally, I am not concerned by McKee’s performance against ASU last Friday. He has already shown us time and time again this season how talented he is and his resiliency. He will bounce back and continue to lead this offense. As for the Cardinal defense, thanks to WSU’s play style, it is very possible for one of the members of Stanford’s secondary to add to their interception total. Jimmy Wyrick has been a revelation after being pressed into duty thanks to a few injuries, while Kyu Blu Kelly has solidified himself as one of the top corners in the conference, if not the country. Also watch out for junior cornerback Nicolas Toomer, who had a breakout performance against Oregon.
DS: Turnovers can be inevitable in the early stages of a young quarterback’s career, and Cardinal fans should still expect McKee to be able to put the team in a position to win. McKee might be the best quarterback the Cougars have faced all year and should have no problem eclipsing the 231 passing yards that the Wazzu defense concedes per game. On the other side of the ball, Kyu Blu Kelly can have an effect on the game even without recording an interception.
CZ: Washington State enters the game on a win streak after upsetting Oregon State, formerly undefeated in the Pac-12. Do the Cougars carry this momentum to another victory or can Stanford spoil the season of yet another Pacific Northwest team? Score predictions?
NM: Stanford 24, Washington State 17 — I do not see this weekend’s match up as being a very high scoring game. Both teams have defenses that can stand up to each other and, in general, get many stops. I like the spread (Stanford by two), but the total points predicted is just too high for my liking. Also, unlike last week, Pullman’s environment is not as hostile as Tempe, giving David Shaw and the Cardinal team an opportunity to bounce back.
ZZ: Stanford 27, Washington State 14 — Neither team has built a reputation for putting many points on the board, so I anticipate defense will be the story of this game. Washington State’s success the past two weeks isn’t particularly concerning to me, as their matchups with Cal and Oregon State are not quite as competitive as the likes of Stanford’s last three opponents, all of whom have been ranked. With their toughest competition behind them, Stanford should take this game in Pullman, anchored by a defensive effort that will contain Washington State to only two scores.
EB: Stanford 35, Washington State 21 — This is not Stanford spoiling the chances of another Pac-12 North foe. The Cardinal are currently favored to win the game and are frankly the more talented team. They need to take care of business in Pullman and that starts with limiting Washington State’s pass-happy offense. Look for Tanner McKee to have a bounce back performance, and Stanford to get a win to rejuvenate their quest for the Pac-12 North crown.
DS: Stanford 31, Washington State 24 — Despite having identical overall and conference records, Stanford’s resume this season is much more impressive. Last week’s upset over an Oregon State team that has not beaten a team with a winning record has not convinced me that Washington State will overpower the Cardinal. Aside from their win last week, Wazzu has only defeated a weak California team and Portland State, a team with a losing record in Big Sky Conference play.