James Snook/USA Today

Previewing Stanford-WSU with Cougfan.com

Barry Bolton of Cougfan.com drops by to discuss the WSU Cougars as they prep for Stanford.

Few conference opponents have felt Stanford’s wrath like Washington State.

Stanford saves special punishment – career days from Jim Plunkett, to Ed McCaffrey and Andrew Luck – for a team who came so close to derailing them last year. “Ken Margerum and Darrin Nelson seemed like they were at Stanford for about seven or eight years each and haunted the hell out of the Cougs,” Cougfan.com executive editor Greg Witter said.

But while eight straight wins have pushed the Cardinal’s all-time series lead to 40-25-1, Saturday night promises to be a fight Washington State eagerly awaits. Cougfan.com analyst Barry Bolton confirmed as much in his visit to Opposing Views.

1) This is easily the most important and intriguing matchup between these two on The Farm since Jason Gesser dropped Stanford to the Seattle Bowl in 2001. What's the mood in the Palouse for this one? Do you sense a different vibe or anticipation among the Cougars for this game, compared to other important ones in Mike Leach's tenure?

It doesn't feel any different. Indeed, after watching some practice this week, our man on the ground, Skyler Cracraft, said it feels exactly the same as last year heading into the Stanford tilt: workmanlike, nose-to-the-grindstone type of stuff. Everyone is, however, aware this is a key game. Washington State reclaimed its season last Saturday with a big win over the Ducks. They'd love to keep the momentum going with a win on the road against a Stanford team they haven't beaten in the last eight tries.

The Cougs stumbled out of the gate with a pair of three-point losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State. They've righted the ship and won their first Pac-12 game in dominating fashion. But expectations were high heading into this year among the players, coaches and alumni, with a Pac-12 title the goal. Starting out 2-0 in conference play, and against the two schools many picked as their preseason favorites to win the North, would be a boon.

2) Along the same lines, talk about where the Cougars are now in Year Five under Leach versus how significant a win over Stanford would be and where it would elevate them? How much bigger would it be than last year's upset of Oregon (also on the road, also the defending Rose Bowl champ)?

From this chair, a WSU win on Saturday would be nothing like a win last year would have been. And that's because of given how good Stanford was last year, and that WSU was still in the early stages of turning the corner under Leach. A WSU win this year also wouldn't be as powerful as it would have been last year, given the Card's uncharacteristic pratfall against the Huskies. Stanford has certainly lost some of its aura of invincibility after getting blown out in Seattle.

We fully expect Stanford to regroup, flush the loss and come out locked in and with laser focus against the Cougs on Saturday night. Yet in looking at the season as a whole and the four games played, Stanford does look more vulnerable than last year or in recent years past. On top of that, we're not sure they're as deep. The injury situation illustrated some of those depth concerns in last week's loss.

3) How big a development is the running game? Explain how long it's been since opponents couldn't just sit back and prepare for a one-dimensional Washington State team. Talk about the progress of the offensive line, which, if I remember, barely had enough healthy bodies in Leach's first year.

It's potentially huge. It forces opposing defenses to have to game plan to a much greater degree for

Washington State. What it also allows is for a master in accuracy, Cougar QB Luke Falk, to become that much more effective.

Last year's Washington State o-line was very good, but they didn’t do a lot of run blocking. This year's line identity is in large part built on the following: it wants to run people over. It looks like they've jelled over the past two games and so with only one-quarter of the season in the rear view mirror, the confidence and comfort-level in both run and pass blocking is at a high.

So this just in: Washington State's o-line and backs want to knock heads in the run game. Now, whether Leach and the Cougar coaching staff decide that's the best way to attack a formidable 2016 Stanford defense, that's anyone's guess.

4) What changes in Luke Falk have you noticed in this his second full season as starter? How does the passing game differ than the one that nearly beat (should have beaten?) the Cardinal last year?

Falk seemed less comfortable in the first two games. The last two games, he's been as sharp (if not more) as he was last season, a year that saw him earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors. The passing attack in Leach's Air Raid doesn't change much year to year. Everyone knows what's coming, and WSU looks to find the soft spots sideline-to-sideline.

Gabe Marks is on pace to become the all-time leading receiver in the 101 years of the Pac-12, but WSU rotates eight men at four WR spots and Falk will generally complete passes to 10-11 receivers in a game. And a great example for those unfamiliar with the Wazzu Air Raid was seen last week vs. Oregon.

Marks is the bell cow at wideout, a star fifth-year senior. And Marks, who played pretty much the whole game, caught one pass in the first quarter, and one pass at the end of the third quarter in the win over Oregon. And Falk threw for 371 hashes on 36 of 48 passing. The Cougs have a lot of offensive weapons and when things are clicking, Falk deftly uses them all.

5) Was the demolition of Oregon -- and the near-miss at Boise State -- a case of the Cougars all but shedding the weaknesses Eastern Washington exposed, or do you envision Stanford exploiting faults Washington State just can't hide?

The Boise State game didn't hold many positives for Wazzu, it was a game WSU lost that frankly they should have won going away. The demolition of Oregon showed a focused team executing its assignments at a high level. But David Shaw is one of best coaches in the nation at keeping his team calm and at the right (high) idle speed. There is no doubt among the brain trust of Cougfan.com (a term we use loosely) that Shaw will have his team ready to play.

That said, forget about the UW game. The Stanford-UCLA game was just as telling in our book. Stanford in years past and including last year, has been excellent in "taking grass,” as in closing the gap to the ball carrier in open space and making sure, one-on-one tackles. We didn't see that as much as we expected from Stanford against the Bruins. And obviously it was more pronounced against UW. And that's a long way of saying this: On paper, from our perspective, there's no clear underdog/overdog in this one.

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