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This game is pretty big for the 2004 Stanford Cardinal. And while observers have been calling all five of the Card's previous games this year "huge" for one reason or another, Stanford heads into Pullman this weekend at an inflection point of the season. At 3-2 after last week's Keystone Kops performance in South Bend, Stanford must win on the road to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. Just two games remain at home, while the team plays four contests on the road over the next six weeks. Of those four away games, this weekend against Washington State looks the best on paper.
When you take a look at Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings, Stanford currently stands as the #31 team in the nation. Two of their remaining road opponents are in Sagarin's top 10 (Arizona State - 8; Cal - 9), and UCLA has risen to #26 on the heels of their four-game winning streak. Washington State ranks #41 currently and as such could be called the one game of the four where Stanford could be favored on a neutral field. The oddsmakers in Vegas agree, having set the line for this game at a two-point advantage for the Cougars before heavy betting on the Cardinal moved the game to a "pick 'em" proposition. Home teams typically see a three-point advantage, which affirms the idea that Stanford is on even ground or slightly ahead in this matchup.
Moreover, Buddy Teevens failed to win a conference game in his first two years (0-8) on The Farm. This is the first of four opportunities in his third year to buck that trend, and it is precisely the type of game he and Stanford truly need to win. Washington State has meandered to a 3-2 record this year in unremarkable fashion. Both of their losses have come at home, and it is reasonable to call Martin Stadium the least daunting road arena in the Northwest. The Cougars have yet to play a good game in Pac-10 play, squeaking by conference doormat Arizona by a 20-19 margin and then allowing one of the most prolific offensive performances against them in school history, losing to Oregon a week ago.
Simply stated, Washington State looks right now to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the conference - just like Stanford. If you can't beat them on the road, it'll only get tougher the rest of the way. The Cougars have a young defense and have experienced some uncharacteristic problems on offense this year. While WSU comes into this game on a three-game winning streak against Stanford, and they have won 10 games in each of the last three seasons. But this year's squad looks little like the nationally ranked teams from 2001, 2002 or 2003. This is a winnable game for the Cardinal if this is to be a winning season.
WSU Offense vs. Stanford Defense
The trademark of Washington State success in recent years has been the spread offense that throws the ball aggressively down the field. In last year's meeting at Stanford, the Cardinal defense held that attack in check for a great number of plays, but they were beaten over the top on a few backbreaking throws. There is reason to be optimistic that Stanford can fare better on Saturday, with improvements in their defense as well as some challenges still facing the WSU offense. The principle difference is the Cardinal's utilization of more zone schemes and less of the high-beta man coverage. When the anemic pass rush failed to get home in 2003, the Card cornerbacks were hung out to dry and inevitably would be beaten as quarterbacks had time to pick apart the defense. The 3-4 scheme in 2004 has made for better pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but more importantly, less balls are being completed over the top of the secondary.
Last year it was Matt Kegel who passed prolifically against Stanford and the rest of the conference, but the heir apparent has been underwhelming at times. Redshirt sophomore Josh Swogger entered the season highly touted and as a team captain but was embroiled in a quarterback controversy after the second game of the year. After an ugly 20-12 loss to Colorado where he threw for just 77 yards on 6-of-27 passing, it took days before Bill Doba was willing to give any public vote of confidence in Swogger. Even then, the Cougar head coach said he was ready to pull his quarterback upon future failures. Doba had yanked his starter not once but twice in the loss to the Buffs, each time sending redshirt freshman Alex Brink onto the field. Though younger and inexperienced, the 6'2" Brink has greater mobility and arguably more upside.
Swogger has been known as a pocket passer without great wheels, but his immobility has been exacerbated by a pair of injuries. The 6'5" sophomore has torn his posterior cruciate ligament in one knee and has a bum ankle on the other leg. His strength is his size and his arm, which can put the ball deep if he has the time and protection.
"He doesn't have great mobility right now," Doba says of his starter. "He's a tough guy. There are a lot of kids who probably wouldn't be playing with his injuries right now. He's made great throws but sometimes guys don't get open."
That last little remark is a shot taken at the Cougar receiving corps which has been up and down this year. Washington State often puts a minimum of four wideouts on the field on offense, and they project to start two sophomores and a freshman this Saturday if in a three-WR set. Their leading producer is 6'0" true sophomore Jason Hill, who dwarfs all other WSU receivers with 96.6 yards per game and eight touchdowns on the season. Seven of his last nine catches have gone for scores. He is a big play performer (28.4 yards per reception) who has grown up on the football field almost as fast as he grew up off the field. A San Francisco native who was a standout at nearby Sacred Heart High School, he became the man of the house at a young age when his father was shot and paralyzed a decade ago. Last year, his father passed away.
"He's a kid 19 years old going on 35," comments Doba.
True freshman Michael Bumpus is a name you remember from West Coast recruiting wars a year ago as he was one of the Cougars' top catches out of Culver City, Calif. Ranked as the #15 wideout in the nation, he committed to USC before a decommit and switch to Washington State. The 5'11" frosh earned his first college start last week against Oregon. While he caught just two passes for 17 yards, the explosive athlete did break a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown.
A receiving threat you might overlook is arguably the Cougs' most valuable player on offense. Junior tight end Troy Bienemann has had 20 balls thrown his way this year, and he has hauled in 16 of them for catches. Doba praises the hands of his versatile tight end, who is also a solid blocker. The news surrounding the 6'4" 245-pound tight end this week, though, has focused on his health. Bienemann missed his first start of the season last weekend against Oregon with a somewhat mysterious leg bone bruise. He was held out of Tuesday's practice in Pullman but has improved during the week and now looks likely to play against Stanford.
To counter the WSU spread offense and these numerous receiving threats, Stanford is expected to employ a heavy dose of their nickel defense. Rather than the 3-4-4 you have become accustomed to watching through the first five games of the year, expect to see a lot of 3-3-5 and even 3-2-6. There has been more of Stanford's dime defense in practice this week than I have seen at any other time this year.
There are two other factors on the offense that appear to be gelling and could give the WSU passing game a boost going forward. The first improvement has come on the offensive line, which has seen a number of shuffles early in the year but for the first time last week carried the same starting five over from the previous week. The coaching staff may have finally found the right personnel and chemistry in that front five, as witnessed by the 157 yards rushing and zero sacks allowed. The starting OL for the Cougars is a massive collection of beefcake, with four of them measuring 6'7" or greater. Three starters tip the scales at 320 pounds or more. Pressure will be hard to come by on the edges, in particular, where Washington State has fifth-year seniors Sam Lightbody (6'9" 320) and Calvin Armstrong (6'8" 322). A four-year starter, Armstrong plays left tackle and is regarded as the top talent on the line.
The other exciting element for Cougar fans of late is the ramp up in the running game. "The ground game has really improved. That's the thing we really needed," Doba declares. "Early in the season, we didn't run well at all. Now we're starting to become a more balanced team."
The biggest star in last week's rushing surge was 5'9" junior Jerome Harrison, who racked up 117 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries against the Ducks. He leads the team with 5.1 yards per carry this season, but he is not projected to start this Saturday. Doba instead prefers to wheel fifth-year senior Chris Bruhn (6'3" 220) onto the field for opening carries, as a reward for time served and leadership. Regardless of the starting assignment, though, look for Washington State to employ a liberal "running back by committee" with these two tailbacks plus 5'10" redshirt junior Allen Thompson. While Doba despises rotating quarterbacks, he has openly embraced the approach with his running backs. In theory, the hot hand gets the carries as the game wears on.
If the improvements in the Cougar offensive line and running game are for real, Stanford could have a tough time in Pullman defending this offense. The spread receiver sets will be matched in kind with spread defensive formations. Stopping the aerial attack will become twice as hard if Cardinal defenders have to keep an eye on the backfield, and particularly if pass rushers cannot penetrate the mammoth offensive line. A key will be for Stanford's front three and blitzing linebackers to get home and put pressure on the immobile Swogger. Though he had a stretch of 93 attempts this year without throwing an interception, he tossed two picks last week and needs to be hurried into quick throws on Saturday.
WSU Defense vs. Stanford Offense
This looked like a losing battle for the Card just seven days ago, when the Cougar defense was ranked 19th in the country. But then the Oregon offense exploded all over Martin Stadium for the fifth most yardage ever allowed in Washington State history. The only thing more sour than the 646 yards they gave up was the 27 fourth quarter points. After leading 27-14 and later 35-21, the home team "Couged it" in a big way. They WSU defense had been one of the best out West and in the nation before that game, but now they sit in the bottom half of the Pac-10 in every team defensive category.
"Our defense struggled a little bit last week against Oregon," says an understated Doba of the fiasco. "We lost a little bit of that swagger - that confidence - in the fourth quarter... Our defense was on the field for 102 plays in that game, and Stanford is probably a better team than Oregon."
"They kind of freelanced a bit," the head coach continues in discussing the defensive collapse. "The defense has a design... I think they'll become more disciplined this week."
At the forefront of last week's failures was the secondary, which is ironically the most (if not only) veteran part of the defense. The back four start three seniors and a junior, but they lost assignments and gave up play after play against the Ducks. One prevailing theory is that Washington State had great difficulty dealing with the mobility of Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens who rolled out and hurt the Cougs by air and by ground. Clemens threw three touchdowns and ran for three more. WSU did sack him five times, but those plays aside, he ran for 67 yards on nine carries (7.4 ypc). Cardinal quarterback Trent Edwards has shown great mobility this year and similarly hurt teams when he has scrambled for nearly a five-yard average on run attempts. If the Cougars had a hard holding their defense against that threat last week, this week could bring more of the same.
The most productive member of the Washington State defense is of course middle linebacker Will Derting, who made headlines a year ago when he ran afoul of the law with a DUI arrest just hours after a Cougar home victory. Doba meekly "suspended" Derting in the subsequent bye week and held him out for just the opening of the Stanford game, before releasing him onto the field in the tightly contested affair. It was Derting who incidentally laid a big lick on Trent Edwards and knocked him out of the game. This year, the redshirt junior leads the team with 39 tackles, along with three pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a sack.
The most intriguing unit of the Cougar defense has to be the defensive line, though. They have some experience with a junior and senior in the starting lineup, though at defensive tackle it is a pair of youngsters that have grabbed early attention this fall in the Palouse. Freshman Ropati Pitoitua came to Washington State as a greyshirt and exploded onto the scene by starting the first two games of the season as a frosh, recording 2.5 sacks. In his first ever college game against New Mexico, Pitoitua was second on the team with seven tackles. At 6'8", he is a menacing presence in the defensive interior with an incredible future. The rapidly rising star was sidelined with a high ankle sprain the last three games but returned to practices this week and is expected to play against Stanford.
During the three games with Pitoitua out of action, redshirt freshman Aaron Johnson (6'6" 303) ably filled the gap and was also impressive despite his inexperience. Johnson already has 4.5 tackles for loss and a blocked kick in his relief duty the past few weeks.
"You hate to use the term 'stepped up,' but he really has," Doba praises of the redshirt frosh DT. "We're going to be pretty good if we can keep those guys healthy the next couple of years."
With a mix of youth and experience, the Washington State defense can be Jekyl and Hyde in their execution, but the one thing Stanford expects is for them to be aggressive and relentless. The Cougars have forced 16 turnovers through five games this year, and Buddy Teevens expects them to actively pursue the ball for more of the same this Saturday.
"Washington State is one of the most physical teams on our schedule. They come at you hard snap after snap after snap," the Cardinal head coach warns. "They're a very aggressive, very physical group. Ball security will be an issue."
Trent Edwards will see pressure with the fast Cougar defense playing on their home artificial turf. They sacked Kellen Clemens five times last week, though the young Cardinal offensive line gave up just one sack last Saturday in South Bend against a vaunted Notre Dame pass rush. Edwards' decision making will, as always, be a key. They lapses he made with his three interceptions against Washington continue to haunt the collective Cardinal psyche, though he threw no picks last week and has not thrown an interception in three of Stanford's five games this year.
Another factor to consider will be the long field Stanford is likely to face on offense. Washington State redshirt junior punter Kyle Basler is quietly one of the best in the nation, ranked #7 in Division IA with a 45.7 average. He has a career average of 43.8 yards per punt, which is incredible. Basler has more than just a long leg (40 career punts at 50+ yards), though; he has placed 54 punts inside the 20-yardline in his college career. That comes to 35% of his punts inside the 20. Basler has put 18% inside the 10 and 12% inside the five-yardline. If you expect Stanford to spend much of its day starting deep in their own territory, that not only accentuates their need for sustained offensive drives, but it also highlights the importance of not turning the ball over. Giving Washington State a short field at home would be a certain recipe for disaster.
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