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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Cardinal

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Washington State and Stanford meet with both teams struggling to reach bowl eligibility.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars and Stanford Cardinal meet in Pullman on Saturday (1:30 pm, Pac-12 Network) with far less on the line than has been typical over the past four seasons. In 2015, this matchup decided the Pac-12 North. The last three years, both programs have contended for the division title, and those meetings carried with them a lot of weight.

With WSU and Stanford sitting at 4-5, this game has a very different sort of weight attached. This year, each program is trying just to keep a school-record bowl streak alive. WSU is trying to get to a bowl for the fifth straight season, while Stanford is trying to do that for an 11th consecutive time.

WSU has won the last three games against Stanford. Last year’s comeback win had Cardinal head coach David Shaw in tears after the game. It seems to cause him great pain to lose to Wazzu, so despite the lack of high-level stakes, you can be sure he is going to take this matchup very seriously.

Let’s look at the key players and trends for Stanford as it tries to disappoint WSU’s dads.


When Stanford has the ball...

The biggest question for the Stanford offense this week, and all season, has been the health of starting quarterback K.J. Costello. He has missed four full games and parts of others due to injury, and Shaw has said that he is questionable for Saturday.

Stanford isn’t totally lost on offense without Costello, however. Shaw said should Costello not be able to go that backup quarterback and former big-time recruit Davis Mills is healthy after also suffering an injury that forced third-stringer Jack West into action.

Mills has played in six games this season, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for 8.1 yards per pass, five touchdowns, and just one interception in 110 attempts. He started and threw for 293 yards and a touchdown against Washington, and preceded that with a three-touchdown performance against Oregon State.

For comparison, in Costello’s 167 attempts so far in 2019 he has averaged 6.2 yards per pass with six touchdowns against three interceptions. Almost a two yards per pass difference is a pretty big deal, but it seems that Costello will go if Shaw deems him healthy enough. If not, don’t expect the Cardinal QB to be a walkover.

Then again, last week against Cal proved that pretty much no one is a walkover against the WSU defense (with apologies to Steven Montez).

Whoever the quarterback is, he’ll throw primarily to three guys—wide receivers Connor Wedington and Michael Wilson, and tight end Colby Parkinson.

The scariest pass catcher of the bunch, however, is Simi Fehoko. The sophomore wideout is averaging almost 30 yards per catch on his 12 catches so far this season, and has four touchdowns. He has topped the 90-yard mark in three of the last four games with just three catches each time.

WSU is 75th nationally in explosive passing rate allowed. It seems like a near certainty that Fehoko will shake loose for at least one big gain against the Cougs.

Lucky for WSU—who is 120th in explosive rush rate allowed—Stanford doesn’t feature a dominant, game-breaking back like it has in the past. Senior Cameron Scarlett has carried the ball the most, 172 times for 763 yards and five touchdowns. He will likely be spelled occasionally by freshman Austin Jones (30 carries, 164 yards, one touchdown).

Overall, Stanford’s offense has been below average no matter who was throwing the ball. The Cardinal are 87th in SP+, 97th in yards per play, and 94th in success rate (staying on track for first downs). They have struggled with success rate on standard downs (91st) and passing downs (94th).

Havoc has also been an issue—Stanford’s offense has allowed the 108th highest havoc rate. That includes 57 tackles for loss, 22 of which have been sacks.

WSU’s defense hasn’t been good in any of the aforementioned categories either, so the two sides might meet somewhere in the middle.

When that happens, turnovers and capitalizing on scoring opportunities can play a big role in deciding which side comes out looking better. Stanford has only turned the ball over eight times this season, so its ability to finish drives is the stronger candidate to be a key factor.

That has been a major weakness for the Cardinal. They are 101st in touchdown rate in scoring opportunities—getting into the endzone just under 38 percent of the drives they journey inside an opponent’s 40. It’s not much better when they reach the redzone, with just 43 percent of drives resulting in a touchdown.

Interestingly, that’s where WSU has been at its best. The Cougs are bad at most everything on defense, but they rank 45th in scoring opportunity touchdown rate—giving up six on 50 percent of those drives. Wazzu is 46th in redzone touchdown rate, allowing touchdowns about 60 percent of the time.

Shaw does tend to be pretty conservative in going for it on fourth down, and that may play a role in his team’s lower touchdown rate in scoring chances. WSU will be happy to see the Cardinal trot off the field on any fourth and shorts.

One important wrinkle is that Stanford’s reliable kicker with a great name, Jet Toner, is out for the season. He has been replaced by Ryan Sanborn, who also handles the team’s punting duties. So far, Sanborn has hit four of five kicks, with a long of 40 and a miss of 32. He has made all extra points.

The Cougs will almost certainly bend, but not breaking could lead to a much different Stanford total. Limiting big plays from Fehoko will of course be important. Equally important is that Shaw may be avoiding long field goals, and WSU may possess the ability to shut Stanford down just enough times inside the 40.


When WSU has the ball...

While Stanford doesn’t yet know if it will be without its starting QB, it will certainly be missing its best defensive back against WSU. Cornerback Paulson Adebo, who has four of Stanford’s seven total interceptions, is expected to miss a few weeks after suffering an injury at Colorado. The Cardinal may also be missing starting free safety Malik Antoine, who Shaw said was doubtful in his Tuesday press conference.

Those are big potential blows to a Stanford defense that is currently 120th in passing success rate allowed. They’ll be facing a WSU offense that ranks third nationally in passing success rate.

The Cardinal do seem to show some element of keeping passing plays in front of them, as they are just above average—58th—in explosive passing rate allowed. WSU is 52nd in explosive passing rate, so you might see some long, but effective Cougar drives in this one. Death by paper cuts, as we like to say. That sounds like Brandon Arconado and Easop Winston Jr.’s music.

Stanford hasn’t been great overall against the run—117th in rushing success rate, and 120th in yards per rush allowed—but they do possess the ability to make a big play against the run. The Cardinal are 47th in stuff rate (percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line) and are 36th in success rate against short yardage runs. Max Borghi could break off some nice runs, but Anthony Gordon needs to make sure to find the advantageous situations in which to hand off the ball.

The inability to get in the endzone on scoring opportunities has been WSU’s undoing in its last two losses. That was against Oregon and Cal, two teams who excel at stopping teams once they get closer to the goal line. Stanford hasn’t been quite at their level, but has been at or slightly above average. The Cardinal have allowed touchdowns on 54 percent of scoring opportunities (63rd) and 63 percent of redzone trips (51st).

If Stanford is able to limit big passing plays from WSU, the Cougs are going to need to improve over their last two outings in converting scoring opportunities. Doing so could be the difference between a nail-biter and a comfortable home win.


The Bottom Line

For some reason (likely extremely high success rates and decent explosiveness on offense), both Vegas and Bill Connelly’s SP+ love the Cougs this season. The betting line opened with the Cougs favored by 12, while SP+ predicts a 19-point Cougar win.

WSU did not live up to Connelly’s projection against Cal, but blew past it against Colorado and Oregon. Who will show up? That seems to be determined by the strengths of the opponent, and Stanford hasn’t typically given WSU the same fits that Cal does.

Still, the Cougar defense can give any team hope, even one with a struggling offense. It’s cliché, but this will likely come down to scoring opportunity and redzone performance on both ends. WSU’s offense should be in position more often, and if they cash in for touchdowns at a high frequency, they could pull away. If not, Stanford could flip this to its favor with a big play or two and a better-than-usual performance in scoring opportunities.