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Red zone conversions likely will hold the key for WSU vs. Stanford

Stanford’s defense has been maligned, but the Cardinal stiffen up when backed up to their goal line.

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

Much has been made of the Stanford Cardinal defense not being as stout in 2018 as it has been in previous years, and how that might play into Saturday’s contest against the Washington State Cougars’ potent offense.

In terms of traditional stats, the Cardinal are awful:

  • 80th in yards allowed per game
  • 74th in yards allowed per play
  • 98th(!!) in passing yards allowed per game
  • 77th in passing yards allowed per attempt

The advanced stats, however, see Stanford as a good bit better than that: FEI ranks the Cardinal 58th, while S&P+ ranks them all the way up at 42nd.

The likely explanation? Despite all those yards given up, the Cardinal don’t concede a ton of points (30th nationally) thanks to a spectacular red zone defense: They’re fourth nationally in TD%, allowing touchdowns on just a little over one in three trips by the opponent.

The Cougars, meanwhile, score TDs on 85% of their red zone appearances — second nationally.

Irresistable force, meet immovable object.

Last year, the Cougs scored on four of their five red zone chances against Stanford, including three touchdowns. The year before that, it was 5-of-6 with all five of those being touchdowns. It should be noted that Stanford wasn’t great in that category either of the last two years, but it should also ease any concerns that there’s something in the Air Raid that might prevent it from breaking through on Saturday.

Of course, given Stanford’s porous defense, there’s always the chance WSU bypasses the red zone altogether with big plays. I’m sure we’d all be OK with that. But it’s more likely that whether WSU ultimately wins or loses will come down to how the Cougs are able to finish drives after moving the ball with relative ease between the 20s.