By Jibriel Taha
Stanford (3-4, 2-3 Pac-12) lost its fifth straight game against Washington State (4-3, 3-2 Pac-12) on Saturday evening, falling 34-31 in Pullman.
Coming off of a performance marred by missed opportunities at Arizona State (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) last week, the Cardinal hoped to rebound and stay among the top contenders for the North division title.
Despite an early lead, Stanford could not keep up for 60 minutes. The Cardinal run offense struggled mightily, averaging a mere 2.2 yards-per-attempt on 35 carries, which makes Stanford — a team formerly defined by its strong run game — the only team in the Pac-12 averaging less than 100 rushing yards per game.
Stanford got off to a fast start, as sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee came out firing on the opening drive. He went four-for-four to four different receivers, capped with a strike to sophomore tight end Benjamin Yurosek for a 45-yard touchdown. Soon after, a defensive stop and subsequent 51-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Joshua Karty put the Cardinal up by 10 points early on.
It quickly got worse for the Cougars, as linebacker Jahad Woods — their leading tackler — was ejected for targeting late in the first quarter.
The Cardinal were able to tack on another field goal for a 13-0 lead, but things shifted quickly. Washington State sprinted down the field for consecutive touchdown drives, both of which took less than three minutes and ended on passes longer than 30 yards. But a blocked extra point by senior defensive end Thomas Booker kept the game tied at 13.
“I think on three or four of those attempts I was pretty close,” Booker said of the extra-point attempts. “One of them I was too low and I couldn’t get my hand up, but it’s a great feeling to get one back. I feel like I probably should’ve gotten at least one more today.”
Despite the momentary celebration, the Cardinal were in free fall. A sputtering run game thwarted the Cardinal offense once again, and Washington State kept driving down the field whenever it had the ball.
The Stanford defense recorded a key fourth-down stop in the red zone, but that did not stop the bleeding. On the very next play, the Cougars recovered a fumble from junior running back Nathaniel Peat. Quarterback Jayden de Laura immediately found wide receiver De’Zhaun Stribling for a 10-yard touchdown reception. The extra point made it 20 unanswered points from the home side.
The Cardinal were able to drive down the field before the end of the half but yet again stalled in the red zone. Karty tacked on his third field goal of the night as Stanford headed into the break down 20-16.
Things soon began to look bleak for the Cardinal, as de Laura led the Cougars 66 yards down the field to extend the lead to 27-16 late in the third quarter.
But Stanford would not go away. A nine-play, 74-yard touchdown drive capped by a quarterback sneak from McKee got the Cardinal within 5. A defensive penalty gave the Cardinal an extra shot at the 2-point conversion, and it was McKee again who rushed it into the end zone. The Cardinal were within 3 points.
Stanford kept it rolling. After the Cougars failed to connect with a wide open receiver streaking down the sideline, McKee went back to work. Head coach David Shaw put his trust in McKee’s arm, and McKee delivered with an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to put the Cardinal up 31-28 with under eight minutes remaining.
The squads traded punts, and then Washington State ripped apart the Stanford defense for what would be the game-winning score. It was the third Cougar touchdown drive of the night that was over 50 yards and took less than three minutes. But the quick-strike nature of the attack left a minute and a half for McKee, with Stanford trailing 34-31.
It wasn’t meant to be for the Cardinal. McKee was pressured on three straight plays. On the third one he fumbled, and the Cougars recovered the football. De Laura took a knee, sealing the victory for the Cougars.
“We didn’t pass protect like we had been pass protecting the whole game,” Shaw said of the final offensive drive. “We had a couple of shots. We had a couple of guys that were breaking open. But their guys beat our guys up front.”
Despite the loss, McKee was solid once again and finished 23-of-32 for 273 yards with two touchdowns. Yurosek also had another strong showing, recording five catches for 99 yards along with his touchdown.
Defensively, junior inside linebacker Levani Damuni registered 12 tackles, tying his career high, and had two tackles for a loss and a sack.
The defeat in Pullman delivers a blow to Stanford’s division title aspirations, as they will now need significant help to jump back into the race — that is, someone else beating the Pacific Northwest teams. After dropping two straight on the road, the Cardinal head into a much-needed bye week as they prepare to host four of their last five games at Stanford Stadium.
Postgame, Shaw emphasized that the bye week would be beneficial in “giving a lot of guys a break” and “getting some guys healthy.”
“It’s been one hell of a schedule,” Shaw said of the season thus far. “It really has — a lot of travelling, played seven games and five teams at one point in time were in the top 25.”
The Cardinal return to action on Oct. 30 when Washington (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) visits the Farm.