It's the end of October and Wazzu controls their own destiny for the Rose Bowl. When the Cougs welcome the Cardinal into Martin Saturday night, a national television audience will get to witness a contest between the two most contrasting offensive styles in the PAC-12 for the top spot in the North.
Stanford's offense is usually described using some metaphor for heavy machinery, unceremoniously crushing its opponent's will beneath the ruthless brutality only formations with eight offensive lineman can provide. The Cardinal have 'jumbo' and 'ogre' sets that aren't gimmicks, it's part of what they regularly do.
2 TE, 7 LINEMEN. STANFORD IS TURNT pic.twitter.com/M3yoS6g7PJ— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) October 25, 2015
Stanford doesn't restrict size to their hosses up front, they're top two pass catchers that aren't running backs are both six-foot-four and over 220 pounds. Stanford has built a well-deserved reputation on being the most physical offense in a conference that prefers to spread it out.
Look at 51 getting his work in https://t.co/eGv6Hb8ceH— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) October 25, 2015
Only this year things are a little different....they're also scoring a ton of points, averaging 37 a game this season, good enough to rank 23rd nationally.
The offenses for both WSU and Stanford are operating an an extremely high level right now. While stylistically they're diametrically opposed, they have more in common philosophically than you would think. Head coaches Mike Leach and David Shaw hammer home one major point of emphasis: execution.
Stanford will line up and grind you to dust, Wazzu will spread it out and dissect you with pinpoint incisions. Neither of them do anything coaches haven't seen on tape before, none of it is particularly fancy, all of it is the mindset that they're unstoppable if the execution is on point.
What concerns me about the Stanford match-up
Heisman. Look, if you're even in the conversation about breaking Barry Sanders' total yardage record you're pretty dang good, and Christian McCaffrey could seriously do it. If you haven't seen Stanford yet this season and aren't familiar, here's an excellent piece by Stewart Mandel on McCaffrey.
McCaffrey averages 79.9 yards per game in kick-off returns alone, going for 29.4 yards a pop, which should be terrifying for Coug fans. He also leads the team in receptions (21) averaging 13.52 yards per catch and is already only 47 yards shy of 1000 yards on the ground.
Stanford will work McCaffrey into the passing game on various screens out of the backfield, one that was particularly clever had him sprint horizontally a handful of paces directly to the sideline from his backfield alignment before sharply reversing course and turning it into a jailbreak screen. He'll also be used on wheel routes and bust vertical down the center of the defense. The kid is dynamic, that high YPC isn't only due to YAC, he's targeted downfield as well.
He's a really special player in the middle of an outstanding season.
Bombs. The Cardinal offense under quarterback Kevin Hogan should look really familiar; run, run, run, play action deep post or corner or seam. Their MO is pretty well established at this point, and Hogan has delivered those massive play action shots against the Cougs consistently in each of their previous match-ups. With all the attention McCaffrey should garner in run support (and out of the backfield), those big Stanford WRs (and TE Austin Hooper) could blow past the secondary if they don't read their keys right. Their size allows Hogan some leniency in his accuracy, they'll win 50/50 balls and have a huge catch radius.
Plus, Francis Owusu can apparently do this;
Defense. The FBS opponents for WSU haven't exactly been stout, defensively. In defense S&P+ they rank 118th, 116th, 63rd, 89th, 96th, and 115th nationally. You could argue that they rank that low in part because WSU hung a ton of yards on them...but that's more wishful thinking than anything. WSU hasn't faced a defense as good as Stanford (ranked 42nd), or anything close to as good really.
Spotlight. The Cougs have been happily spending their time taking care of business in the afternoon on Saturdays, out of most people's way and on a network hardly anybody gets. That changes this week. Prime time on ESPN against a top-10 opponent at home, for control of the division. These players were in elementary school the last time a game of that magnitude happened at WSU. We don't quite know if they're the type of team to rise to the occasion or fold under the pressure, because these are uncharted waters.
Jon Wilner, outstanding college football and basketball writer for the The Mercury News was kind enough to provide his thoughts...
What are you most confident in about the Stanford Cardinal?
"That it won't do something stupid. Stanford usually doesn't beat itself with a slew of knuckleheaded plays (major penalties or turnovers). Also fairly confident in its ability to run the ball over the left side. LG Joshua Garnett and LT Kyle Murphy are probably the best tandem in the conference."
What I'm confident in about Wazzu
Bring out Mr. Hyde. The Cardinal have had the same guy at quarterback for three years, but he's been two different people; "Good Kevin Hogan" and "Bad Kevin Hogan", who hasn't taken any snaps this year. He's leading the conference in passing efficiency and has only fell to single digits in yards per attempt twice, at Northwestern to open the season and against UCLA.
The Cougs rank 5th nationally in LB havoc rate and 28th in adjusted sack rate on standard downs. Whether the Cougs can get after Hogan and rattle him could be the difference-maker in the game.
Jacket weather. Stanford has left California twice in seven games; opening the season on a sunny morning in Evanston, Illinois and venturing up to Corvallis in September. WSU has already played three games in the wind and rain. The Cougs know how to pitch and catch in poor conditions and Stanford hasn't needed to wear sleeves yet.
The generally accepted consensus that a run-based offense is favored in bad weather applies only if that offense doesn't ever need to pass. It will be cold on Saturday, and wet, and probably a little windy, force Stanford into passing downs (which is a chore) and make Kevin Hogan beat you with his arm in Pullman's finest October weather.
Not Trent Murphy. Wazzu has been terrorized by Stanford's vicious front seven the past couple years. This year is a different story for the Cardinal; they rank 127th in adjusted sack rate, 86th in DL havoc rate, and sit at 10th in the PAC-12 in tackles for a loss. Falk should have some time, which has been rare for WSU against Stanford in recent history.
Untested secondary. Stanford has faced five freshman quarterbacks in their seven games this season -- Cody Kessler is the only QB they've gone up against that wasn't a first year starter -- and rank 40th nationally in pass efficiency defense. The Cardinal have traditionally (recent times) mixed between zone and man coverages, blitzing out of both fairly often. They've toned it down a little this year and have shown a good deal more nickel.
They will still be creative with blitzes, but have predominantly shown a soft zone coverage behind it. This has lead to some open spots in their secondary, which is protected over top by two converted offensive players at safety.
So, Mr. Wilner...
What scares you about Wazzu?
"Nothing scares me. I'm not playing. What concerns Stanford about WSU? Probably the prospect of Luke Falk getting into a rhythm early and remaining in that rhythm throughout the game. Stanford has an inexperienced secondary that has struggled in stretches against top passing games. I expect the Cardinal will do everything possible to disrupt Falk's timing."
How I see the game playing out
It's always interesting to see two dramatically different styles of football play out on the field. Will Stanford be able to work ground control on the clock and limit WSU possessions? Will WSU be able to score enough to push pace? Just please kick everything out of bounds and put the scoring squarely on the Cardinal offense's shoulders.
The Cougs need to get on board first and at some point score on three consecutive possessions in the first half. This game can go their way if they get a lead and push the scoring pace, coerce Stanford into playing catch-up. Hogan and the Cardinal haven't been in many close contests, their last five games were basically over at half time, being caught up in a quick scoring pace could cause them to press, make mistakes.
McCaffrey will get his, he's too good not too, but WSU scores enough to get Stanford out of 'ball control mode' and very far away from their comfort zone.
It's Halloween. In Pullman. During #Pac12AfterDark. Let's get weird.
Final score: WSU 38 - 35 Stanford
And Mr. Wilner...
"I think it will be fairly close for two or three quarters, with Stanford eventually taking control. I am skeptical that WSU, which has so little experience in game of this magnitude, will avoid major mistakes. The tendency is to get caught up in the emotions of the circumstances and try to do too much. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan has been playing in big games since late in the '12 season. Falk has never played in a game like this, with first place at stake.
"The other factor in Stanford's favor is that WSU isn't used to playing teams that use tight ends, fullbacks and extra offensive linemen -- nobody in the league plays the way Stanford does. The Cardinal has overpowered WSU and teams like it through the years. I figure Stanford will win by 10-14 points."
Huge thanks to Jon for taking the time, you can read all of his excellent coverage here.