PULLMAN, WA - This season has been a roller coaster for WSU Football that went off the rails starting with the collapse against UCLA back in week four of the season, and while there have been bright spots, the team just hasn’t been able to regain their composure. Last week, Washington State fell at the hands of the California Golden Bears 33-20 in a frustrating day at Berkeley.
This Saturday, Washington State (4-5, 1-5) is hosting the Stanford Cardinal (4-5, 3-4) at 1:30 p.m.. Washington State has enjoyed recent success against Stanford, they're 3-0 against the Cardinal in the previous three seasons. Both teams are coming off of losses - the Cougs fell to Cal and Stanford fell to Colorado. Not only did the Cougs lose on the field last week, they also lost some of its defensive players. Linebacker Fa'avae Fa'avae transferred out of the program, and cornerbacks Daniel Isom and Trey Davis have reportedly been kicked off of the team for an unspecified violation of team rules. WSU's defense is already thin, now they have to adjust after losing three of its defensive players. Stanford has had its own share of frustration and inconsistency this year due to injury. Stanford is also very young on the offensive and defensive fronts. Last week, the Cardinal struggled to generate offense, and were defeated by Colorado 16-13. The result is especially surprising considering how poor the Colorado defense has performed all season. But hey, it’s the Pac-12, and anything can happen.
The Pac-12 has proven to be inconsistent - like it is almost every year, so there's no telling what you could expect from this match up between WSU and Standford. But let's try, here's what you can expect for Saturday's afternoon Pac-12 showdown.
When Stanford has the ball:
The biggest question for Stanford's offense this week (as it has been all season), is the health of starting quarterback K.J. Costello. He has missed four games this season, as well as parts of others due to injury, and Cardinal head coach David Shaw has said that he is questionable for this Saturday. Stanford does have a reliable backup in Davis Mills waiting in the wings if Costello is unable to play, so Stanford isn't in disarray without their starter. Mills has played in six games this season, and has thrown five touchdowns against one interception in 110 passing attempts. He started and threw for 293 yards and a touchdown against Washington, he followed that up with a three-touchdown performance against Oregon State.
Stanford has a reliable receiving core in Connor Wedington, Michael Wilson, and tight end Colby Parkinson. The receiver that WSU's defense will need to keep it's eye on however is Simi Fehoko. He averages nearly 30 yards per catch on his 12 receptions this season, along with four touchdowns. He's topped the 90-yard mark in three of the last four games with just three catches each time. WSU ranks 75th nationally in explosive passing plays allowed rate, so Fehoko is likely salivating looking at a rather porous defense.
Fortunately for the Coug's defense, the Cardinal doesn't have an extremely strong rushing attack like in years past. Senior Cameron Scarlett has carried the ball the most, 172 times for 763 yards and five touchdowns. Stanford's offense has been below average this season - a big part of that trend, has been Stanford's struggle on the offensive line. Which has been surprising weakness considering Stanford has sent many offensive lineman to the NFL - Stanford’s offense has allowed the 108th highest havoc rate. That includes 57 tackles for loss, 22 of which have been sacks.
The Stanford offense has struggled to finish offensive drives with touchdowns, The Cardinal rank 101st in this category nationally, so if WSU can employ a bend but don't break mentality, they can likely force Stanford into multiple field goal scenarios.
Interestingly, that’s where WSU has been at its best. The Cougs have struggled in most defensive categories but, they rank 45th in scoring opportunity touchdown rate — only giving up six touchdowns on 50 percent of those drives. Wazzu is 46th in redzone touchdown rate, allowing touchdowns about 60 percent of the time.
When WSU has the ball:
While Stanford doesn't know who will be starting at quarterback on Saturday, it will certainly be without its best defensive back in Paulson Adebo, who suffered an injury against Colorado. He has four of the team's seven interceptions. Coach Shaw has said the Cardinal may also be without starting safety Malik Antione, as he was listed as doubtful earlier this week.
Those are potentially two big blows to the Stanford defense, which ranks 120th in passing success rate - facing a WSU offense that ranks third nationally in passing success rate. The Cardinal do a well enough job keeping big plays from happening, as they rank in the mid-50's when it comes to explosive plays, meaning WSU may have to nickel and dime its way down the field a little bit more.
Stanford has struggled mightily against the run, coming in ranked 117 against the run. WSU running back Max Borghi is probably licking his chops knowing he could have himself another 100-yard rushing day. Cougs' quarterback Anthony Gordon will need to be aware of opportunities to gash into Stanford's defense with a well placed Borghi running play.
The inability to get into the endzone has been the Cougs kryptonite in its last two losses to Oregon and Cal. If Stanford is able to limit big plays through the air, then WSU will have to capitalize on its scoring opportunities and convert them into touchdowns.
This game will likely come down to whoever executes best in the redzone - I realize that sounds obvious, but WSU will likely be in position to score on a more regular basis throughout the game. Anthony Gordon and the Cougar offense has had its way with every defense it has faced this season with the exception of Utah. So it should be able to orchestrate successful drives throughout the game, it’s just a matter of whether the drives will end with touchdowns or field goals. If the Cougs are executing well, the Cougs could have a chance to pull away. (Vegas has them favored by 12) However, if Stanford is able to stop WSU in the redzone more often than not, plus break a few big plays on offense, they could quickly turn the tide in their favor.