Stanford will enjoy a massive overall talent advantage Saturday. Washington State, though, is still a Pac-12 program that can rival the Cardinal with starpower at specific positions. Tall, lanky receiver Marquess Wilson (38 catches, 640 yards) has an NFL future, while versatile Travis Long (10 TFL, 7.5 sacks) roams from position to position in the defensive front seven to wreak havoc.
Individually, both of these players pose a significant threat to Stanford. But the good news for the Cardinal is that they're not reinforced by loads of other equally talented players. Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Alex Debniak, A.J. Tarpley, Jarek Lancaster, and James Vaughters don't exist to back up Long in Pullman in the same way that they make opponents pay for double teaming Chase Thomas at Stanford. So, David Shaw must make sure that his club is in the correct schematic position to neutralize the linebacker and Wilson, his star offensive counterpart.
It will be a challenge because Long can line up at every linebacker position and at any spot on the defensive line. It'll be up to Josh Nunes (or Kevin Hogan, in his package) to identify where No. 89 is located in the Cougars' defensive formation so that the Cardinal are sure that he is blocked. Andrew Luck was excellent in this facet of the pre-snap game, so it wasn't a surprise when opponents' best defenders were eliminated from the conversation.
Defensively, Wilson's long strides make him a tough cover. Stanford tightened the screws on Cal stud Keenan Allen last week with assistance from excellent safety help over the top from Jordan Richards. The Cardinal love Alex Carter's athleticism so much that the true freshman has earned a starting spot at cornerback. Together with Terrence Brown, Wayne Lyons, and Barry Browning, he'll have to use that explosiveness to pounce on Wilson close to the line of scrimmage. Since Washington State passes over 70 percent of the time, the Cougars often use quick short throws in place of their running game, so big cushions are tantamount to free yardage.
Solid, disciplined work on the perimeter is made easier by a safety playing at an all-Pac 12 level. Enter Richards into the equation here. The work of the secondary can allow the meat of the Stanford defense to catch up, swarm the football, and exert its overwhelming physical advantage against Washington State.
Introduce a Talented Secondary to Sheer Size
One more area of considerable Cougars' talent is safety Deone Bucannon's spot. The junior has amassed four interceptions and leads Washington State with 60 tackles (not a great reflection of Mike Leach's run defense, by the way). Stanford would do well to pick on small Cougar cornerbacks Daniel Simmons and Anthony Carpenter instead of Bucannon. Pep Hamilton has already established Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as wide receivers on the outside, and such alignments have brought size-mismatch success to space. The Cardinal should continue creating islands with their giants on the outside.
Play to Prepare
Stanford's physical advantage up front is likely big enough in this contest for an extremely vanilla gameplan, such as the one seen against San Jose State, to net a victory. That, however, would accomplish next to nothing. Following these two weeks against lightweight opponents (Colorado is next), the Cardinal foray into their true tests of the season against Oregon State and at Oregon.
Nunes isn't yet playing at an adequate level to beat either of those two conference powers yet, so the next two weeks are a good opportunity for Stanford to build necessary confidence and aggressiveness. The team already made the mistake of playing the Spartans far too gingerly - and they almost lost. Saturday's game must feature the ingenuity and aggressiveness the Cardinal should have displayed in their season opener. Otherwise, it'll be nothing more than an uninspiring win against a physically overmatched team. What good would that do?
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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