I skipped this feature last week because, well, Idaho. Frankly, no one person or one unit had to play exceptionally well for Washington State to beat their fellow land-grant university from a few miles away. Truth be told, I was more worried about Southern Utah beating the Cougs than I ever was about the Vandals. You saw this, right?
I can't remember a time when WSU played such different opponents in back to back weeks. From one of the worst teams in the FBS to the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal, the Cougs go from a team everyone is beating up on to one of the most dominant and consistently great teams of the last five seasons. Stanford is a team built in a way Nick Saban wishes he could build a football team: 42,000 offensive lineman and an offense that isn't afraid to run plays with nine of those lineman on the field at a time. Stanford is not a team that, barring a run or pass that breaks for a lot of yardage, is going to score quickly. They are going to push you around up front and pick up their yards six or seven at a time. Once they've worn you down physically by the 3rd quarter, they keep their foot on the gas pedal and dominate you like the top five team they are.
Last year, their defensive front sacked Jeff Tuel 10 times. Quarterbacks go half a season without being sacked that much. Despite that, Tuel managed to throw for over 400 yards and WSU held the Cardinal to 256 yards on offense, including just 3.2 yards a carry. The Cougs had a chance to tie at the end of the game but couldn't hit pay dirt. It was the play of WSU's offensive line and one interception returned for a touchdown that proved to be the difference and allowed Stanford to escape with a win.
So far this season, the defensive line has been a dominant unit. Their anchor up front is a 285 pound beast in Ioane Guata. You may know him better as Junior. Whatever you call the senior from Anaheim, he's a mauler and an absolute beast. Whether he's blowing through a double team into the back field or absorbing blockers to free up Darryl Monroe, Kache Palacio or Cyrus Coen (side note: Monroe and Palacio are sophomores. That's awesome), Gauta is a game changer for the Cougs up front. That's not to discount the work of Toni Pole or Xavier Cooper; both have had a great season so far. But Gauta has been dominant in a way we haven't seen in a defensive lineman since Mkristo Bruce.
Stanford is a team that makes a living by beating you up in the trenches. If Washington State is going to win this game, it isn't going to be in a shootout. The Cardinal's defense is disciplined and physical; they are going to keep WSU's offense in front of them and will make them pay for any mistakes. Both of the Cardinal's losses last year were close, low scoring affairs. Their wins over Wisconsin and Oregon were the same: close and low scoring. If your defense can keep the Stanford offense under control, that's where the building blocks for an upset lie.
Gauta and defensive line have to play their most complete game of the year. Against USC, they controlled a relatively anemic offense can only allowed them to score a touchdown with their back already against a wall thanks to a fumble. In their second Pac-12 game, they have to keep Kevin Hogan and Tyler Gaffney under control, no small task for any team but it's one, I believe, the Cougs are up to.
This will be WSU's biggest test of the season. In previous years, just getting out of these games without a significant injury was victory enough. But not anymore. The "well, we kept it close" isn't cutting it anymore. The chances of upsetting one of the best teams in the country are small to be sure. But Lloyd Christmas once said "So you're tellin' me there's a chance?" and if the Cougs are going to get together with Mary Swanson, Ioane Gauta is a guy who gives them the best chance.
Lookout Stanford. The Gauta Train is on its way.