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WSU vs. Stanford football preview: Stepfan Taylor and the Cardinal offense

The Cougs head to Stanford on Saturday and the Cardinal are heavy favorites.

Ezra Shaw

The Washington State Cougars head to Stanford to take on the Cardinal Saturday at 3:15 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks. Stanford is heavily favored in the game and has the advantage over WSU in most areas.

No sense in waiting, so here is the breakdown of the Stanford offense and the WSU defense, starting with one of three pretty, branded, charts.


Stanford is better at passing, rushing, and on offense in general than the Cougars are at defending. Despite the flack that quarterback Josh Nunes has taken this season, he has led a passing attack that is well above average.

Nunes has had success throwing primarily to his talented tight ends. Senior Zach Ertz leads the team with 31 catches for 505 yards and three touchdowns. Levine Toilolo is second with 15 catches for 288 yards and three scores. Nunes will throw to these two early and often, and they provide significant match-up problems for any defense.

Much of the success in the passing game can be attributed to the attention defenses have to pay to the Cardinal rushing attack, led by senior Stepfan Taylor. Stanford is an old-school run to set up the pass team, and Taylor carries the load. He has tallied 175 rushes this season for 846 yards and six touchdowns. The next closest in carries on the team, as far as running backs go, is Anthony Wilkerson with 18. Taylor will frequently have the ball in his hands, and he is tough to stop.

When looking at how the Cardinal offense performs on specific downs, there is one surprise, as shown in the graph below.Stanforddownslogo

The Cardinal have a surprisingly low success rate. Considering how well the team does on the ground, it would be natural to think they are among the nation's best in successful plays, but the reality is they are among the worst.

The run game may be exactly why Stanford has such a low success rate. The Cardinal are averaging just 4.2 yards per carry on first down. A successful play on first down is defined as one that gains half of the necessary yardage, so that may explain why Stanford has done so poorly in creating "successful" plays.

Stanford has made up for their lack of successful plays by performing exceptionally on passing downs. Again, this is surprising to most who have watched Nunes play this season. Having those two big tight ends on third down has been helpful, and the Cardinal have been able to convert on third and long better than most.

The Cougars have been able to do a solid job of getting into the backfield on defense for most of the season, but Stanford will make that difficult on Saturday.


The Stanford offensive line has been dominant. They rarely allow the quarterback to be sacked, and they go several drives on average without having a negative yardage play. Combine that with over five yards per carry, and the Cougar defensive front seven has a tall task on Saturday.

Travis Long was shut out against Cal in terms of sacks, and it will be tough for him to get to Nunes, who has rarely been sacked all year. This Stanford offense truly is old school, and they don't allow themselves to be placed in difficult situations.

Overall, the WSU defense is outmatched again in this one. If there is any silver lining, it is that the Cougars' best players, the front seven, will be called on to make the majority of the plays against a run-heavy and tight end-focused attack. The secondary has been letting the team down in coverage for much of the season, and Stanford's scheme will allow a guy like Deone Bucannon do what he does best; help in the run game.

Stanford has had several games this season where it has struggled on offense, but this won't be one of them. Expect huge rushing numbers from Stepfan Taylor as he and the Cardinal offensive line wear the Cougars defense down.