STANFORD VS. WASHINGTON STATE at Seattle CenturyLink Field
Saturday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m.
Although No. 5 Stanford should beat Washington State on Sept. 28 in Seattle, there are reasons to believe the Cougars can present problems for the Cardinal.
The Cougars gave Stanford all it could handle on the Cardinal's home field last season, getting to Stanford's 9-yard line with a chance to tie on the game's final possession before Stanford held on for a 24-17 victory.
And this Washington State teams looks considerably better than last year's version. The Cougars (3-1) have won three in a row, including a road win over USC.
Although the Cougars' identity is built on Mike Leach's fast-paced spread offense, it's their defense that has made them a threat this season. Washington State ranks 10th nationally in total defense and 13th in scoring defense. The only score it allowed against USC came after the Trojans recovered a fumble at the Cougars' 22-yard line.
Washington State did an outstanding job of limiting Stanford's running game last season. The Cougars have been good, but not great, against the run this year, and the Cardinal again will try to impose its will with its punishing running game. The absence of All-American offensive lineman David Yankey, who will miss the game because of a family situation, may hurt the Cardinal's running game a bit. But Stanford has lots of talented depth on the offensive line and should be able to control the line of scrimmage on offense.
Stanford needs to establish its physical superiority up front to sap the enthusiasm from the Cougars, who figure to be sky high for this nationally-televised game that was moved from Pullman, Wash., across the state to Seattle's CenturyLink Field.
"Nobody lives to play Southern Utah," WSU quarterback Connor Halliday told the Spokane Spokesman Review. "Nobody lives to play someone like that. You live to play the top-five teams in the nation, and that's where you can become something that they can say, 'Hey, that's where the Cougars turned their thing around. They got a big win. That was the 2013 group that started that.' So that's what we're trying to do."
Stanford's strong suit is its defense, which relies on a strong front seven, a varied scheme that disguises its intentions well and textbook execution. But the Cardinal has to be worried about the breakdowns that allowed Arizona State to score three fourth-quarter touchdowns to turn a lopsided game into a relatively close 42-28 victory.
The Sun Devils were productive when they abandoned their running game and went to a wide-open passing game, which is what Washington State does throughout a game.
Halliday has 10 touchdown passes and is a better downfield passer than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. But Halliday also has thrown eight interceptions, so the Cardinal may pick off a pass or two. Stanford has forced at least one turnover in 27 straight games, the longest active streak in the country.
The fact that Stanford will play the first half without all-conference safety Ed Reynolds, who was ejected in the fourth quarter last week for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the quarterback, won't help the Cardinal. He is a critical factor against a team like Washington State that relies heavily on its passing game and offers a deep threat.
Washington State seldom runs the ball, and is not productive when it does. Given Stanford's proficiency in stopping the run, Stanford can expect Halliday to pass on nearly every down.
Stanford must apply a pass rush similar to last year, when it sacked the Washington State quarterback 10 times. That may produce the turnovers Stanford needs.
Stanford is riding an 11-game winning streak, which is the second longest active winning streak in the country. Ohio State has won 16 in a row.
STANFORD PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Kevin Hogan is 8-0 as a starter. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes in the first three games, which is down from his 71.7 completion percentage last year. The fact that Hogan is attempting more passes downfield has something to do with that. Hogan is getting better at throwing the deep ball, but that remains his biggest shortcoming. Hogan ran more frequently against Arizona State than he had in the first two games, rushing for 37 yards against the Sun Devils.
--RB Tyler Gaffney has averaged 110.3 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry in the first two games. He rushed for a season-low 95 yards against Arizona State, and will be called upon frequently against Washington State.
--WR Ty Montgomery - After being injured much of last season, Montgomery has emerged as a big-play threat on the outside, something Stanford has lacked in recent years. His 14 receptions and 273 receiving yards both are more than twice as many as the team's second-leading receiver. He has four of the team's seven touchdown receptions. Montgomery has also been an outstanding kick-returner, averaging 27.1 per return.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford has a 37-25-1 record against Washington State, including a 24-17 victory over the Cougars in 2012 at Stanford. The Cardinal has won five straight against Washington State, which has not beaten Stanford since 2007.
QUOTE: "As far as their defense against our offense, I thought they took it to us. It was one of the top two most difficult days to run the ball for us." - Stanford coach David Shaw, on the success Washington State had against the Cardinal last season, a game Stanford won 24-17 while gaining just 120 yards on the ground, averaging 3.2 yards per carry.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S RUNNING GAME: Stanford relies on a power running game behind its strong offensive line to control the game's tempo. The Cardinal has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in its first three games, which is all right, but not great considering the caliber of the run defenses it faced. Stanford must run the ball effectively against Washington State to establish physical superiority. Tyler Gaffney has become the primary running back, averaging 110.3 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. But Anthony Wilkerson had his best game of the season with 68 rushing yards, including an 18-yard touchdown run. QB Kevin Hogan also ran the ball more against Arizona State than he had in the first two games, adding an important dimension to the ground attack.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S PASSING GAME: Sophomore QB Kevin Hogan has completed 62.9 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. The pick he threw against Arizona State was a bad one. He is averaging 20.7 passes per game, a low number by today's standards. He is adept at throwing from the pocket or while on the move, and he can escape a pass rush. In recent years, Stanford's passing game revolved around its tight ends, but tight ends have combined for just two catches for nine yards in the first three games. WR Ty Montgomery has become the primary target, and he has four of the team's seven receiving touchdowns. Hogan has had trouble throwing the deep ball with accuracy, but he seems to be improving in that regard.
ASSESSING STANFORD' RUN DEFENSE: Stanford's run defense is its strength. It yielded 284 yards on the ground against Army's triple option attack, but limited San Jose State and Arizona State to 35 and 50 rushing yards, respectively. The Sun Devils, who don't have a strong running game, averaged just 2.1 yards per attempt against the Cardinal. Washington State does not have much of a running game ether. Stanford's front seven is among the best in the country, although that group has not been as dominant as expected in the first two games.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S PASS DEFENSE: Stanford's pass defense is based largely on its pass rush. The Cardinal, which led the nation in sacks last year, has seven through the first three games, as teams are focusing on getting the ball out quickly. Stanford's secondary, led by CB Alex Carter and S Ed Reynolds, is better than it's been in recent years. However, Reynolds likely will be suspended for the first half of the game against Washington State. Stanford's pass defense had a number of breakdowns late in the game against Arizona State, which threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jordan Williamson is 6-for-8 on field goal attempts, including a long of 48. His only misses came on attempts of 51 and 52 yards. He has had touchbacks on 10 of his 21 kickoffs, and Stanford's kick coverage has been pretty good. Ty Montgomery has proven to be a solid kick returner, averaging 27.1 yards per attempt. Ben Rhyne has averaged 41.3 yards per punt with minimal returns.
--OG David Yankey will miss the Washington State game because of a family matter.
--DE Henry Anderson will miss his second straight game because of a leg injury suffered against Army. He will miss a few games after that, but is not expected to be out the rest of the season.
--S Ed Reynolds will be suspended for the first half of the game against Washington State after being ejected in the fourth quarter against Arizona State for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the quarterback.
--S Devon Carrington is scheduled to start in place of Reynolds against Oregon. It will be Carrington's first start this season, but he started five games in 2011 as a sophomore.
--DE Josh Mauro, a fifth-year senior, got his first career start and his first career interception in the game against Arizona State. His pick led to Stanford's first touchdown. He will start again against Washington State.