The WSU Cougars continued their resurgence Saturday night when they marched into Stanford Stadium and whipped the No. 15 Cardinal from start to finish, with only the final gun limiting the damage to 42-16.
The Cougars move to 3-2 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12, joining the Washington Huskies as the only undefeated teams left in the entire conference. Stanford, meanwhile, drops to 2-2 in the Pac-12 and 3-2 overall.
WSU’s offense will get a lot of attention, putting up 42 points on the once-mighty Stanford defense. But it was really the Cougar defense that set the tone for this one, flying around and absolutely shutting down the Stanford offense from the get go. The Cougs consistently reset the line of scrimmage in the Cardinal backfield, penetrating to blow up just about everything Stanford tried to get going.
Christian McCaffrey was a total non-factor, gaining just 35 rushing yards on eight carries — his lowest output since a three-carry, 19-yard performance against Oregon late in his freshman year. The Cougs finished with five tackles for loss, including four sacks. In particular, Hercules Mata’afa more or less lived in Stanford’s backfield.
That’s not to take anything away from the WSU offense. Luke Falk threw for 357 yards on 30-of-41 passing with four touchdowns and two interceptions, as the Cougs rolled up 458 yards of total offense. The running game wasn’t quite as effective as it had been the past couple of weeks, but it was good when it needed to be, as the running backs picked up 104 yards on 25 carries, including more or less mauling the Cardinal on WSU’s final drive that resulted in its sixth touchdown.
Stanford, meanwhile, gained just 296 total yards and didn’t score its first offensive TD until time expired ... against WSU’s second and third stringers.
Among WSU skill players, inside receiver River Cracraft had the biggest day and his biggest day in a year, going for 130 yards and an amazing touchdown on seven catches. He had just 187 total yards in the first four games combined. Falk did something he hadn’t done most of the year: Threw the ball into tight spaces and trusted his receivers to make plays. And they repaid his faith time and time again.
The game started a defensive battle, with the teams each failing to move the ball early on. WSU’s defense forced a three-and out on the first two drives as Stanford decided it would rather try an pass to move the ball early — McCaffrey carried the ball just once. The Cardinal did pick up a first down on the third drive, but that was all.
Unfortunately, the Cougar offense sputtered early, too. Falk threw a rare interception on the first drive (appearing to throw to nobody in particular), then misfired to a wide-open Gabe Marks to miss a third down conversion.
But then the Cougs came alive, keyed by an explosive play. The Cardinal had been unabashedly coming after the QB, so WSU ran that shovel pass that has been successful in that situation, and Jamal Morrow busted loose for 45 yards. Three plays later, Falk found Cracraft for 27 yards on a beautiful drop in the bucket, and two plays later Falk found Martin in the back of the end zone on a gorgeous throw just past the finger tips of the defender.
WSU scored again on the next drive, stunning everyone who’s never actually paid attention to the Cougs when Falk found Martin on 4th and 7 from the Stanford 29 for a touchdown that featured Martin reversing field and picking up a couple of nice blocks to outrace the Cardinal to the end zone. That put WSU up 14-3.
The Cougs really had an opportunity to put the Cardinal away when Peyton Pelluer forced a fumble on a sack on the ensuing drive, with Isaac Dotson picking up the ball at Stanford’s 42 yard line. WSU looked like it was heading for a big lead when Falk found River Cracraft for 17 yards on 3rd and 10, and then a nine-yard completion to Marks made it 4th and 1 at the Stanford 14. With WSU poised to go for it again, a false start penalty pushed WSU back.
That’s when #SpecialForces reared its head again: Mike Leach elected to go for a 35-yard field goal — a seemingly good situation to help Erik Powell get back on track — but Powell missed his fifth consecutive field goal to open the year when he pushed it wide left.
Thankfully, Stanford had its own #CollegeKickers issue, as Conrad Ukropina missed two field goals of his own, both of which hit the left upright.
The two teams went to break 14-3, but it for the second consecutive week, it felt like it should have been a heck of a lot more. WSU had outgained the Cardinal 222-185 and 7.2-5.3 on a per play basis. The Cougar defense was aggressive and physical and had more or less shut down Christian McCaffrey, outside of one 23-yard run that brought his first half total to a whopping 32 yards.
The Cougars picked right up in the second half where they left off, marching 81 yards in 10 plays to extend the lead to 21-3 on a James Williams two-yard touchdown run. It felt like the game was beginning to rumble out of control when Hercules Mata’afa pressured Ryan Burns into a tremendous diving interception by Dotson deep in Stanford territory.
But then things went a little sideways: Falk got called for an intentional grounding, on which right tackle Cole Madison left the field with an apparent leg injury. Then Falk made his second awful throw of the night on 3rd and 23, overshooting Martin for an interception, which Frank Buncom returned 26 yards for a touchdown.
In a game the Cougars were dominating, it was the only mistake Falk couldn’t make, and it gave the Cardinal some life at 21-10.
But Falk went right back to work on the next drive, which featured yet another head scare in his career — while Falk was trying to slide, Stanford safety Justin Reid was flagged for and eventually ejected for a targeting penalty that bounced Falk’s helmet off the turf.
After Hilinski handed the ball off one time, Falk returned, much to the chagrin of the Twitter doctors. He promptly scrambled for another eight yards, then found C.J. Dimry two plays later for an 18-yard gain to the Stanford 8. A pair of false starts by Andre Dillard on third down made it look as if the drive might stall out, but Falk found Marks in the back of the end zone for a 17-yard TD to stretch the margin back out to 18 at 28-10.
After yet another three and out for Stanford, Falk went right back to work, taking the Cougs down the field 73 yards in 10 plays, capped by the most ridiculous Cracraft catch you’ll ever see:
At that point, it was 35-10 early in the 4th quarter, and the rout was officially on. WSU would tack on one more TD.