The Washington State Cougars host the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday at Gesa Field (4:30 pm PT, ESPNU). Both teams sit at 3-3 halfway through the season, making this is an important juncture for both teams if they hope to be part of bowl festivities.
Last week, WSU extended a seven-game win streak against Oregon State to eight. This week, the Cougs are hoping to make it five straight against the Cardinal.
Let’s look at the key trends and players that will impact Wazzu vs. Stanford.
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When Stanford has the ball...
Much like Jayden de Laura, Tanner Mckee was not the opening game starter at quarterback for his team and much like de Laura, Mckee has proven to be more effective than his more experienced teammate. Since taking over for Jack West midway through Stanford’s loss to Kansas State, Mckee has been strong. The sophomore has tossed 12 touchdowns against three interceptions and is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt (YPA).
Behind McKee, the passing game has been the strength of Stanford’s offense. The Cardinal are 41st nationally in both expected points added per pass (EPA/Pass) and 41st in passing success rate (via @statsowar). Elijah Higgins is Stanford’s most prolific pass catcher, tallying 30 catches for 381 yards and five touchdowns with his 6’3, 235-pound frame this season.
As usual, the Cardinal have no shortage of large pass-catchers. Wide receiver John Humphreys is 6’5 and averaging nearly 15 yards per catch. The Cardinal lost a significant redzone threat when Brycen Tremayne, who had picked up five touchdowns in his first four-plus game this season suffered a season-ending leg injury in Stanford’s upset of Oregon.
Without Tremayne, Mckee will likely look more to his tight ends and running backs more. Sophomore tight end Benjamin Yurosek posted career-highs of six catches and 118 in Stanford’s last game against Arizona State, while junior running back Austin Jones grabbed a season-high five catches for 43 yards.
Jones is also the less effective half of the two-headed Stanford rushing attack that has struggled so far this season. The Cardinal are 90th in EPA/Rush and 124th in rushing success rate. When Nathanial Peat carries the ball, he picks up more than six yards per carry. When Jones gets a hand-off, he picks up less than four yards on average. It’s a bit puzzling that Peat has just seven more carries than Jones (and Jones missed an entire game).
With Stanford typically much more effective passing than running on the balance, this is a matchup of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. WSU has been effective against the pass, particularly since the USC loss, and now sits 27th in EPA/Pass. The Cougs are just 63rd in defensive passing success rate, which combined with EPA suggests WSU is giving up its fair share of pass plays that keep the offense on schedule but are mixing in big plays like sacks, incomplete passes, and interceptions at a higher-than-normal rate.
WSU’s propensity to give up yardage early in a sequence but occasionally recovering on later downs is highlighted by over 72% of its first downs allowed coming on first or second down, 92nd nationally. That’s something on which Stanford could capitalize—the Cardinal are 24th in first downs picked up on first or second down, with nearly 74% of chains-moving plays coming on early downs. The Cardinal are also 29th in EPA on early downs against a WSU defense that is 82nd in early-down EPA allowed.
If WSU can get the Cardinal to third down, they have a good chance to get off the field—Stanford is 104th in success rate on third and fourth downs.
When WSU has the ball...
After three-and-a-half games of ineffectiveness against FBS competition, WSU’s offense finally came to life against the Oregon State Beavers with four consecutive touchdown drives. Did the Cougs and de Laura finally turn a corner? Was it a fluke against a bad defense? Those are questions that may or may not be answered against Stanford.
It was WSU’s passing game efficiency and explosiveness that fueled the big second half last weekend. Stanford’s defense is best against the pass—31st in EPA/Pass allowed and 39th in passing success rate allowed. So, it might be tough for de Laura to sling it around as effectively as he did against the Beavers (although OSU’s strength was the pass before that game, too).
One thing that could make it easier for de Laura is an effective run game, and Stanford has struggled to stop the run. The Cardinal are 114th in EPA/Rush allowed and giving up successful runs on more than 46% of rushing attempts, 112 nationally.
The Cougs aren’t exactly equipped to punish a bad run defense—they are 97th in EPA/Rush and 79th in rushing success rate. However, against a struggling Oregon State run defense, WSU put up an EPA/Rush that would fall into the top-20 nationally over the whole season.
WSU does often struggle with too many negative or no gain rushing plays. The Cardinal register 2.5 non-sack tackles for loss per game. If the Cougs can prevent those, there should be running lanes for Deon McIntosh and Max Borghi.
The Bottom Line
Early downs are important. The Cardinal, despite struggling on the ground, run the ball at the 20th highest rate nationally on first and second down. Stopping those runs when the Cardinal are trying to do their Stanford thing will be important—let them hurt themselves with a determination to establish an identity. However, be wary of the early-down passing game from the Cardinal—despite their running struggles, they are still good overall on early downs because they are effective when they choose to pass.
WSU’s success in defending against the pass has been its most positive development this season. If the Cougs can mitigate McKee’s effectiveness, Stanford doesn’t have the running game that Oregon State used to move the ball. Still, McKee is the best quarterback that WSU has faced since it gave up 45 points to USC, so this will be more of a test than in previous weeks.
On offense, the Cougs are due for some big chunks on the ground, and Stanford may be the defense to provide that. If Borghi and McIntosh are staying ahead of the chains, that takes pressure off de Laura.
However, the biggest factor for the Cougs offensively will be the offensive line. If they can keep de Laura clean, he showed what he can do against Oregon State. However, when he has to move around and throw under pressure, his accuracy dips considerably.
The weather should be perfect, and both offenses have enough to move the ball against the other’s defense. This will come down to big plays and conversions on critical downs. If WSU can keep its magic in big moments going on defense, it has a good shot—but it would be much better if they didn’t put themselves in those positions in the first place.