Washington State and Stanford played a close 24-17 game last year, but throw that result out the window when preparing for Saturday's rematch. The 2012 contest marked the last game before the Cardinal's great transformation from a potential 7-5 team into a 12-2 Rose Bowl champion. Kevin Hogan's offensive takeover sparked drastic changes the following week at Colorado.
The Farm Boys (3-0) have a chance to exorcise some demons this Saturday. They return to Seattle's CenturyLink Field for the first time since, coincidentally, their fourth game of last season, when they fell in gut-wrenching, 17-13 fashion to the Washington Huskies. The opponent is different this time, but ear-splitting noise at the downtown Seattle venue is expected to remain constant. In last year's visit, Stanford featured Josh Nunes at quarterback. Hogan saw his first career snap in that game at CenturyLink. This time around, No. 8 will be the full-time man under center. And as expected, he'll be an integral part of the Cardinal's bid for victory, which is outlined here:
Give Wazzu a Rude Awakening on the Ground
The Palouse is buzzing about what's commonly perceived to be an improved Washington State defense. The Cougars (3-1) have given up only 17 total points over the course of their past three games. But there's a catch: All of those contests have come versus inept offenses. USC's quarterback effort against Wazzu at the Coliseum was particularly ghastly.
The Cougars' season-opening visit to Auburn can be considered their one legitimate measuring stick so far, and that performance didn't end so well for Mike Leach's defense. The Tigers rolled up 297 rushing yards on 45 carries against Wazzu (6.6 average) on their way to a 31-24 victory.
David Shaw has commended the Cougars' physicality on defense. But the fact of the matter is that two of their linebackers weigh less than 220 pounds. They're not exactly built to stymie a power rushing game without over-committing to the box. Washington State got away with doing just that at USC and while holding Stanford to 256 total yards of offense last year, but the Cardinal's downfield passing threat is legitimate now. Hogan has demonstrated that he has the ability and the weapons (Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste) to make the Cougars pay for cheating against the run.
Even without David Yankey, Stanford has the mass up front to give Washington State some Auburn-like trouble in the run department. If Shaw's attack replicates the balance it enjoyed last week against Arizona State, the Cougars' defense will be humbled for the first time since the season opener.
Take Deone Bucannon Out of the Game
Washington State's defensive standout is six-foot-one, 215-pound senior safety Deone Bucannon. He's infused the unit with athletic physicality on the back level through his two interceptions and conference-leading 35 tackles. His impact can neutralize Stanford's offense if it becomes as one-dimensional as it was in the 2012 version of this match-up.
The Cougars' defense may be playing with more heart and intensity than previous versions, but Stanford has the firepower to control it. Limiting Bucannon's effectiveness will be a big part of this effort. This will require a firm grasp of the intermediate passing game to keep Wazzu's safeties at bay. When Bucannon and his cohorts do creep up in run support, Stanford's big boys up front must execute their blocks. Josh Garnett will be making his first career start in CenturyLink Field's noise, but he's talked at length this week about his growing affinity for pull blocking, particularly when he gets a chance to de-cleat smaller linebackers and safeties in space. He'll get his chance to translate the Cardinal's physical advantage onto the scoreboard come Saturday.
Force Connor Halliday into Mistakes
The Cougars have rushed for only 252 yards on 77 carries this season. It's no secret: Mike Leach-coached teams love to pass the football. Quarterback Connor Halliday did just that 65 times against Auburn to open the season, and that strategy will not change with Stanford coming to town. With Ed Reynolds (first-half suspension) and Barry Browning both potentially out of the Cardinal secondary, Wazzu will certainly aim to beat Stanford through the air.
Six Cougar receivers have notched at least 10 catches so far this year. Speedy Gabe Marks leads the way with 31 catches. There are weapons here to give a shorthanded Stanford secondary problems, but Halliday has shown a propensity to be his own worst enemy. He's already thrown eight interceptions this year.
"If you're just doing your job, the ball will hit you in the face," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason frequently tells his unit.
It seems that wisdom may be especially applicable this Saturday.
Remember, if Stanford records a takeaway, they'll have forced one in 28 consecutive games, the top streak in college football. Combine Halliday's tendency to force throws and the Cardinal's propensity to coax mistakes out of the opposition, and the formula is ripe for some game-defining Washington State mistakes.
Last year, Stanford sacked Cougars' quarterback Jeff Tuel a school-record 10 times. That pressure helped deliver Reynolds' winning interception return for a touchdown. Wazzu's offensive line seems to have shown some improvement in 2013, but the Cardinal still looks to have the upper hand in this regard.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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