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Interactive Graphic: Previewing WSU vs Stanford

The Cardinal defense has been unusually soft on third down conversions. That and more.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

After consecutive #50Burgers by the WSU offense and the emergence of the Cougar running game, I’m feeling pretty excited about this team again. They head to The Farm to take on a 15th-ranked Stanford squad coming off of its worst loss of the David Shaw era. Stanford is a proud program and this game still poses a lot of challenges for WSU, but digging into the some of the stats uncovered some areas where the Cardinal are struggling and hopefully the Cougs can take advantage.

From 2012-2015 the Stanford defense finished either first or second in the Pac-12 in opponent third down conversion percentage; their opponents converted a third down on just 34 percent of their attempts over that time frame. So far in 2016 Stanford is giving up a first down on 49 percent of their opponents’ third down attempts, good for last in the conference. This bodes well for WSU, as the Cougs are currently 4th in the country in third down conversion percentage converting 54 percent of their opportunities into first downs. Luke Falk is sixth in the country in converting third downs when passing, getting a first down on 51 percent of those throws.

The visual below shows how Stanford has struggled this season in stopping their opponents on 3rd down vs previous seasons. You can hover over any logo to get more detail; click a different logo to highlight that team’s trend or filter the seasons down:

Keeping with the theme of converting first downs, WSU’s offense is back to being its death-by-a-thousand-cuts self. The Cougs are getting a first down on 35.8 percent of their plays, good for seventh in the country, but are 103rd in plays that are 20+ yards. The Cougs may not blow the top of the defense with a huge play, but they will move the ball up and down the field with the best of them. The Cardinal, on the other hand, have seen their performance in percentage of plays that result in a first down and their explosiveness decline so far this season compared to 2015.

The below chart is filtered to focus in on just the Pac-12. The y-axis shows what percent of a team’s plays resulted in a first down, while the x-axis shows what % of a team’s plays over over 20+ yards (you can adjust that metric by using the drop down to see other selections). The gray dotted line will lead you to the team’s numbers for 2015 and you can use the selector on the right to focus in on only 2015 by hitting the back arrow.

Stanford has faced some really good defenses so far this season — and they have a lot of games left to change this — but last season they were third in the Pac-12, getting a first down on 33 percent of their plays and third in plays over 20+ yards. In 2016 they’re 11th in percentage of plays that are a first down (27 percent) and 11th in plays over 20+ yards (4.72 percent). The Cougar defense has been improving in reducing big plays after their game against Eastern, but hopefully they can bottle up Christian McCaffrey and stifle the Stanford offense like the other teams Stanford has faced so far this season.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on the offensive lines of both teams. Again, 2016 is only 4 or 5 weeks old, so these numbers could change a lot when comparing them to a full season, but so far in 2016 Andre Dillard (Go Woodinville Falcons) and the WSU offensive line has been on fire in protecting Luke Falk. They rank second in the Pac-12 giving up a sack every 27 pass attempts (pass attempts + sacks/sacks). Stanford, on the other hand, is sitting at 12th in the Pac-12, giving up a sack every 8 pass attempts. (I’m sure giving up a sack every 4.3 pass attempts vs UW helped drive that down a bit). Hopefully Hercules Mata’afa can duplicate his performance vs Oregon and put pressure on the Cardinal signal caller.

The below visual looks at the previously mentioned stat and has WSU highlighted. The line is their trend and the data is filtered to the Pac-12 for 2012-2016 (you can bring in 2011 and 2012 if you like). You can type in another team to highlight them or hover over a logo to get more detail. You can also change the stat from the “select stat” drop down.

Stanford is a proud program and full of very good players. This game will not be a cake walk for WSU by any means. However, I think there are a few areas that set up nicely for WSU to take advantage. What does worry me is that Stanford has faced very stout defenses their last few games and I think it will tell us a lot about the #SpeedD and if their improvement vs Idaho and Oregon was for real. Overall though, I’m really excited for Saturday and trying to not let my expectations get too high. What do you see in the data and what do you see happening on Saturday night?