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The Early Glimpse: It's the Cougars finesse vs. the Cardinal's power Saturday night in Pullman

I HESITATE TO CALL this a news item, because it's strictly opinion, but ESPN.com is billing Stanford at Washington State (7:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN, Cardinal by 12 1/2) as a showdown of the Pac-12's top two teams, according to one of the site's bloggers.

ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell was moved to put the Cougars into the Pac-12's No. 2 slot after Washington State (5-2, 3-1) won its third consecutive game last Saturday, beating Arizona 45-42. Look, rankings mean absolutely nothing, other than they're fun talk for fans. Regardless, I think it's a little premature to rank Washington State at No. 2.

I know, I know. The Cougars are fun little story for the Pac-12 scribes. And when all is said and done, maybe Washington State is the second best team in the league. Maybe the Cougars are No. 1 if they beat Stanford on Saturday.

But not now. Not yet.

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to their ranking of a league or a nation. But one that is the most credible is the view from Las Vegas. This is where people put their money behind their beliefs. Money tends to cut to the truth. And truth is, Washington State is not No. 2 in Vegas.

On a neutral field, the Cougars right now would be betting-line underdogs to Stanford, USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Utah and California. And probably Oregon, too, with Vernon Adams at quarterback even though WSU beat the Ducks in Eugene.

Disagree?

Right now, Stanford is the league's undisputed No. 1. After that, you'd have to take a long look at USC for No. 2, if distractions are out of the way. Utah, despite its loss at USC, is No. 3, followed by California. I think you could justify putting Washington State at No. 5, slightly ahead of Arizona State and Oregon.

Again, I think the Cougars could be No. 2 in a few weeks. That's the beauty of the Pac-12. You don't really have to speculate because it's one of two Power 5 league that plays nine conference games. There's little to guess by season's end.

About Stanford: This shapes up as an interesting battle, as No. 8 Stanford (6-1, 5-0) has one of the most experienced offenses in the Pac-12, and definitely the most seasoned quarterback in Kevin Hogan. On the other hand, the Cardinal entered the season with perhaps the most inexperienced defense, with just one returning starter, which faces a red-hot Cougar offense.

The defensive unit that best rises up is likely to be from the team that emerges victorious Saturday night.

Stanford is the most physical team the Cougars will face all season. That is not breaking news, as the Cardinal might be the most physical team to the south side of the NFL. There are no secrets when it comes to Stanford. It wants to hit you hard with a fierce running game, but doesn't shy away from throwing the ball, particularly with a veteran like Hogan at the helm.

This is a game the Cougars are likely to feel well into next week.

Since the Cardinal's shocking and inexplicable 16-6 loss to Northwestern on Sept. 5, Stanford has reeled off six consecutive wins, all by double digits. The one that seemed to get the ship headed in the right direction was a 41-31 win over USC, a loss that triggered the demise of Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian.

As for comparables between Stanford and Washington State, both played Arizona in Tucson. The Cougars prevailed 45-42, while the Cardinal pummeled the Wildcats, playing without Anu Solomon, 55-17. Stanford heads to Pullman off a workmanlike 31-14 win over Washington.

Among Stanford's statistical team highlights are total defense (No. 1 Pac-12, 339.3 ypg), scoring defense (No. 2, 20.6 ppg), rushing offense (No. 3, 221.1 ypg), rushing defense (No. 3, 134.4 ypg) and passing defense (No. 2, 204.9 ypg). The Cardinal's pass defense numbers appear to be legit, as they have faced the Pac-12's No. 3 and 4 pass offenses in USC and UCLA.

If there's a flaw, it's that Stanford doesn't create many takeaways -- it has a league-low five. But the Cardinal compensate with a league-low six turnovers. (For comparison, the Cougars have 12 and 12, for a zero turnover margin.)

The foundation of Stanford's offense is a solid offensive line, Hogan and running back Christian McCaffrey, who has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender.

Hogan, a senior, isn't flashy but is deadly effective, as he leads the Pac-12 in pass efficiency rating at 174.0. Hogan has completed 106 of 159 passes for 1,576 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only four picks.

The Cougars will attempt to slow down McCaffrey, something few opponents have been able to do. The sophomore 'back is on pace to break Barry Sanders' NCAA record for all-purpose yardage of 3,250 yards. Through seven games, McCaffrey has 1,818 yards, meaning he needs to average 238.8 yards during Stanford's final six games to break the record. He's averaging 259.7 all purpose yards per game.

For comparison, the Pac-12's No. 2 in all purpose yardage is Oregon's Royce Freeman, who is nearly 650 yards behind McCaffrey.

Stanford's top receiver is, well, if you guessed McCaffrey, you win. He has 21 receptions for 284 yards. The Cardinal's home run threat is Michael Rector, who has just 13 catches, but averages 18.5 yards per grab.

Players on defense who you might often see Saturday include linebackers Peter Kalambayi (3.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL), Mike Tyler (2.5 sacks, 3 TFL) and Blake Martinez (3.5 TFL) and defensive end Aziz Shittu (6 TFL). Martinez is far and away Stanford's leading tackler with 80, more than double the number of any other teammate. Cornerback Ronnie Harris has nine pass breakups.

The series: Last year's Friday night game on The Farm, produced a 34-17 win for Stanford, which held the Cougars to 292 passing yards despite 69 attempts from Connor Halliday. Washington State has dropped seven consecutive games to Stanford, which last lost to the Cougars in 2007. The Cardinal lead the overall series 39-25-1.

Familiar faces: The Cardinal have six players with Washington ties, including senior starters Joshua Garnett (OG, Puyallup) and Rector (WR, Gig Harbor/Bellarmine Prep). Other Stanford players from Washington include freshman LB Branch Mustafa (Bellevue), junior free safety Calvin Chandler (Lakewood/Bellarmine Prep), senior linebacker Sam Shober (Monroe/Archbishop Murphy) and sophomore WR Isaiah Sims-Brandt (Wenatchee). Among coaches, the only one tied to the Cougars is quarterbacks/receiver coach Tavita Pritchard: his father is David Pritchard, a center on Washington State's 1981 Holiday Bowl team while "Uncle Jack" is legendary Cougar QB Jack Thompson.

NOTABLE NOTES

  • Washington State's 142 points in its wins over Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona is the school's most prolific three-game stretch in conference play since Arizona and Arizona State joined the Pacific-10 in 1978.

  • Stanford has perhaps the oddest schedule in the Pac-12. The Cardinal have two three-game home stands on their 2015 schedule, which sandwich back-to-back road games at Washington State and Colorado.

  • Washington State and Stanford each started the 2015 season with a loss. Since then, the teams are a collective 11-1.

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

 

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