On Saturday, the Washington State Cougars will return home to play in Martin Stadium for the first time since the tenth of September. What is expected to be a very good Homecoming crowd will welcome them as they face one of the toughest tests they will have all season: the Stanford Cardinal.
The Cardinal come in rolling, winners of 13 games in a row behind their starting quarterback, Andrew Luck, who may or may not be Peyton Manning in disguise. They also bring with them a top ten ranking.
The last time WSU defeated a team ranked in the top ten at Martin Stadium was almost ten years ago. On November 2, 2001, the 16th-ranked Cougs defeated the 9th-ranked UCLA Bruins on their way to the Sun Bowl and the first of three consecutive ten-win seasons. Since then the Cougs have had some near misses, losing in overtime to UCLA in 2005 and having a long pass attempt fall short against USC in 2006.
But is there really a possibility that WSU can hang with Stanford on Saturday? Do the Cardinal have any sort of chink in the armor that can be exploited? It is possble. Some aspects of the Stanford offense may be a touch overvalued (not saying they are by any means bad....far from that). We'll get into those when the offense and defense is previewed after the jump.
OFFENSE: 46.2 PPG, 7.2 YPP, #7 S&P
The headliner here is Heisman trophy candidate and future number-one draft pick Andrew Luck. Luck has been highly accurate and clinically efficient so far this year. He has completed 73.1% of his passes for 9.5 yards an attempt. He has tossed 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions in 145 attempts. He also made this awesome one-handed catch against UCLA.
A reason for hope against Luck, and something I mentioned in this week's podcast, is Stanford's relatively poor performance thus far on passing downs. Football Outsiders S&P has the Cardinal ranked 84th in passing down situations. Some of the splits on cfbstats.com helped tell the story of why that ranking may be some low.
The first thing that jumps out is Stanford's completion percentage on 3rd down with between four and six yards to go. They have thrown 17 passes in that situation, connecting on just six of them, for a 35.3% success rate. When it gets up to 7 yards and above on third down, the Cardinal have actually missed only one of 13 pass attempts. However, only six of those went for first downs. It would seem they may be dumping the ball off frequently on third and very long.
Of course, Stanford's effectiveness on passing downs doesn't really matter if WSU is unable to stop the run on first and second down. The Cardinal built a reputation under Jim Harbaugh as a run-first, physical attack and new coach David Shaw has maintained that philosophy. Stanford is averaging 5.16 yards per carry in 2011 and they have run the ball more than they've passed it. Junior Stepfan Taylor is the lead back. He has carried the ball 84 times this season for 459 yards and five touchdowns.
Stanford's running game, while good, isn't quite as dominating as it looks upon first glance. In fact, the Cougs may have actually just faced a more formidable ground game against the UCLA Bruins. Stanford's schedule has been a little easier than UCLA's (part of that is Stanford got to play UCLA's defense and the Bruins had to play the Stanford defense). The Cardinal are actually ranked 45th in rushing S&P, compared to the Bruins who are at number 15.
The problem is, as I discussed earlier this week, WSU basically had to sell out to stop the run against UCLA, and still only held them to 4.9 yards per carry. Selling out will not be an option against Stanford. It's been well documented that Luck has been calling plays at the line, and could easily audible to exploit a Cover 0 defense. Even without that factor, Luck is light-years beyond Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut in terms of talent. WSU will have to attempt to be stout in the run from their front seven in this match-up.
The good news is that the Cardinal aren't the offensive beast they are perceived to be. The bad news is they are still very good and have the nation's best signal caller. There is hope that the Cougs can slow down Stanford, but it will take a fantastic effort all around.
DEFENSE: 10.6 PPGA, 4.8 YPPA, #10 S&P
Although Luck gets most of the attention, he is only part of the reason the Cardinal are enjoying their most successful string of football in modern times. The Stanford defense has been excellent this year. They have been good against both the run and the pass, and have often held teams down early in the game while their offense has sputtered out the gate. The defense can be largely credited with the fact that the Cardinal have yet to play from behind all season.
Stanford will bring a look much different than WSU saw a week ago. They will not be dropping back in the coverage every down like UCLA, they will take some chances and send extra rushers at the quarterback. There will always be a guy rushing from a stand-up position, as they employ a 3-4 base defense.The Cardinal are averaging over three sacks a game, with 17 total on the season. Linebackers have accounted for all but three of those sacks. Chase Thomas leads the team with five sacks and 7 TFL. Lineman Ben Gardner is second on the team with 5.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks.
The defense has been effective against the run, allowing just 2.15 yards per carry overall. However, NCAA raw YPC must be taken with a grain of salt. When the sacks are factored out, Stanford is giving up a much more human 3.52 yards per carry. It isn't totally impossible to run on this defense; yards can be gained. They just can't be gained as easily as you would expect against UCLA, Colorado, or San Diego State. Some draw plays will definitely be in order for this one.
So far this season, Stanford really hasn't been burned by their aggressive approach. They've given up only 5 plays of 25 yards or more through five games. The good news is that WSU does have the personnel to be able to exploit a blitzing defense, with guys like Marquess Wilson and Rickey Galvin. The task will be difficult for the Coug offense on Saturday, but given their offensive style and roster, they are probably better off facing a defense that sends more than four at the quarterback.
The Cardinal are in trouble if...Washington State wins the coin toss and goes down the field for a touchdown, getting the crowd into the game. The Cougs burn the Cardinal for a few big plays and limit the Stanford ground game to around 4 yards a carry.
There's no doubt that WSU has to have a few things go perfectly for them to come out on top of Stanford on Saturday. The odds are still much more in favor of a two-touchdown Stanford win than a one-point WSU victory. But for the first time in a while, the Cougs can head into a match-up with a top-ranked team knowing that there is a chance to pull out a victory. That, coupled with an energized Martin Stadium homecoming crowd, should give Coug fans some hope.*
*Offer no longer valid if the Cardinal jump out to a quick three touchdown lead.