9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Stanford -16.5
A pair of teams looking to pick themselves up off the canvas face off tonight in Paolo Alto, as the 25th-ranked Stanford Cardinal host the Washington State Cougars on Friday Night Football. After an 0-2 start, the Cougars (2-4, 1-2 in Pac 12) have alternated wins and losses, but cannot be understated that Mike Leach has this program as competitive as it’s been in years. Say what you want about these kids and their losing record, but at the very least they’ve been entertaining; three out of their six outings have been decided by three points or less, including each of their last two contests. Most recently was a 60-59 epic against a much-improved California club, in which Leach’s charges came up short in one of those games in which whoever had the ball last was likely to win. The two teams combined for a whopping 1,401 yards on 60 first downs, with the hosts racking up a ridiculous 812 on their own. However, despite neither team committing a turnover, the difference in the encounter proved to be penalties; the Cougars were flagged a dozen times for 121 yards, while the Golden Bears were penalized on eight occasions for just 34.
As to be expected with any team Leach presides over, they are sure to be a handful offensively. This sentiment was clearly on display against Cal, as Quarterback Connor Halliday set an NCAA-record with a ludicrous 734 yards and six touchdowns, on a highly efficient 49-of-70 passing. The Senior has improved by leaps and bounds in Leach’s pass-heavy, spread attack, piloting a prolific offense averaging 523.0 yards through the air. Halliday’s biggest problem last season was interceptions; he threw 22 picks, the most in not just the Pac 12, but the entire FBS. However, with half of the campaign in the books, he’s largely avoided making those same mistakes, throwing just seven interceptions thus far, opposed to 26 touchdowns. The veteran has faced the Cardinal just once in his career, going 24-of-36 for just 184 yards and an interception in a 55-17 blowout loss last season, in which he was pulled late in the contest. So with a team that only runs the ball 20.3 times on average, you can imagine that there are plenty of recipients of his passes. Six different Cougars have already logged 20 or more receptions, with three notching over 40. Big Senior Vince Mayle has already put together what most receivers would consider a solid season, hauling in 51 balls for 703 yards and six scores. He and Halliday connected often in the loss to Cal, posting 263 yards and a touchdown on eleven catches. Fellow Receivers River Cracraft and Isiah Myers have produced nearly identical numbers, combining for 88 catches, 1,150 yards, and thirteen more touchdowns. Stanford’s Secondary will be tested throughout the game, as Leach will flood the field with Receivers looking to exploit mismatches.
However, when talking about any Mike Leach-coached team, there is a flip-side to the proverbial coin; can they make enough stops on defense to truly contend in the Pac 12? The answer to that question thus far is a simple no, as the Cougars have struggled defensively in both their wins and losses. On the season they have allowed an average of 35.2 points (106th overall) on 438.2 yards per game, including 280.2 versus the pass, and another 158.0 versus the rush. Curiously, they’ve managed to induce a fair amount of pressure on opposing Quarterbacks, generating fifteen sacks, but that figure hasn’t parlayed into many takeaways; Washington State has logged just five takeaways this season, with just two interceptions. Linebackers Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan are solid when blitzing, accounting for seven of the team’s total, while Defensive Lineman Xavier Cooper has wrecked havoc in the trenches with three sacks unto himself. With that said, blitzing frequently leaves you unprotected in the Secondary, which isn’t quite the Cougars’ greatest strength. Case in point, Sophomore Cornerback Daqwan Brown leads the unit with 50 tackles; it’s a tell-tale sign of a struggling defense when it’s last line is making all the stops. This could be a serious problem against a Stanford offense that remains one of the most physical in the country; when they met last year, the Cardinal trounced them with 560 total yards, 322 courtesy of the pass and another 238 via the run.
Meanwhile, the 2014 campaign hasn’t turned out as the Cardinal faithful have hoped, as Stanford (3-2, 1-1 in Pac 12) has proven very inconsistent to this point. That’s an uncharacteristic thing to say about a David Shaw-coached team, whom usually play as disciplined as possible. However, they’ve developed a penchant for coming up short in their biggest games this season, losing both of their marquee contests against USC (13-10) and Notre Dame (17-40). In both instances, they couldn’t stop from themselves turning the ball, committing a pair of turnovers in each outing. Against the Trojans they outgained their opponent by 122 yards, including 150 through the air, yet lost a pair of crucial fumbles that negated lengthy drives that could very well have altered the outcome of such a close game. It was a different tale against the Irish, as the visitors simply couldn’t get much of anything moving offensively, only managing to produce 205 total yards, including a mere 47 on the ground, their lowest output of the season.
That’s got to be concerning for a team that has grinded out 141.8 yards per game on the ground, virtually setting up their entire passing game as a result. Replacing Stefan Taylor has turned out to be a more difficult task than it had first appeared to, as nobody in particular has emerged to lead the backfield. As odd as it sounds, no Cardinal has rushed for over 200 yards yet, with the trident of Remound Wright, Kelsey Young, and Barry Sanders accounting for a combined 509 yards. Clearly Shaw is employing a Running Back by Committee approach, at least until someone steps up to shoulder the bulk of carries. If that were to happen, it would clearly benefit one Kevin Hogan, who has carried the burden of the offense for much of the campaign. However, Hogan has proven that he isn’t on the level of his predecessor Andrew Luck, exhibiting limitations that opponents have begun to exploit. The third-year Junior hasn’t been terrible, for unspectacular is a more appropriate description; Hogan has completed 65.4% of his passes for 1,041 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions, but has netted an average of 7.7 yards per attempt, a steep regression from the previous campaign (8.9). As was the case with the rest of his compatriots on offense, Hogan struggled mightily at South Bend, completing just 18-of-36 passes for 158 yards and two interceptions. Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste were adept at making plays down field a year ago, but as is normally the case, Receivers tend to go as do their Quarterbacks. Montgomery has reeled in 30 passes for 280 yards and three scores, but has done so on a mere 9.6 yards per catch, a year after netting 15.6. Ditto for Cajuste who racked up a whopping 22.9 per reception, but is now down to 13.9. The lack of explosive plays has hurt this team, particularly on the scoreboard (24.8 points/game), effectively keeping them confined to a ten-yard box.
Fortunately, Shaw has the toughest defense in the Pac 12 to lean on. Through five games, Stanford has been downright staunch on this side of the ball, leading the nation in points allowed (8.6) on a mere 232.4 yards per game, including just 107.4 against the pass and 125.0 versus the rush. These guys keep games close, so that the offense can have every opportunity to make plays; thus far the Cardinal been the subject of some tight affairs, with the aforementioned losses to USC and Notre Dame, along with a victory over Washington (20-13) have all come by seven points or fewer. Last week, the Irish were able to move the ball against them through the air, but it was far from easy; Everett Golson completed just 20 of his 43 attempts, tossing an interception to boot. On the season, opposing passers are completing just 53.3% of their passes, thanks in large part to arguably the best pass-rush int eh conference, if not the country. Like their counterparts tonight, Stanford has accumulated fifteen sacks, led by hybrid Linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Anderson, who have accounted for four and three sacks respectively. Look for these guys to get plenty of opportunities against the Cougars’ prolific passing attack, which is prone to giving up sacks.