Cougs vs. Card & the elephant in the room

FANS AND PUNDITS can talk all they want about Stanford’s girth in the trenches and Washington State’s well-oiled passing game, but from a crimson perspective the most pressing issue heading into Saturday’s battle for Pac-12 North supremacy is this:

There’s nearly a 60 percent chance WSU will surrender a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown.

Through seven games, the Cougars have given up a nation-leading four TDs via special teams — two on kickoffs and two on punts.

The list includes two in the last two weeks: a 69-yard punt return by Arizona last Saturday and a 100-yard kickoff return by Oregon State the prior week.

This is no aberration, but a worsening of last season’s badinage, when they surrendered special teams TDs at a 50 percent rate: six in 12 games with three each on kickoffs and punts. That, too, was worst in the nation.

When Mike Leach is asked about his special teams woes, the typical response falls somewhere between doing a better job of tackling and/or a better job of not getting blocked.

Not a ton of illumination there.

Special teams coach Eric Mele, who admirably puts himself up to the media each week, talks mostly about consistency being the key to plugging the holes on kickoff and punt coverage. Ninety-eight percent of the time, he said a week ago, his guys are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

But that two percent is being exploited and exploited massively by opponents.

Against a team as stout at No. 8 Stanford, an 11-point favorite as of Friday morning, another special teams break down would figure to border on catastrophic for the Cougars.

The message is mixed on the Stanford side of the equation. The Card rank last in the Pac-12 in average yards per punt return (2.3) but first in kickoff return average, at 26.8, with Heisman contender Christian McCaffrey leading the way. The Card have not taken either a punt or a kickoff to the house this season. But teams with decidedly average return units have taken it to the house against WSU over the past year-plus.

NOTES FROM THE FARM:

  • Stanford coach David Shaw was asked this week why WSU is so improved from last season. “The quarterback (Luke Falk) is playing at a high level, the protection is better than they’ve had in the past, they’re running the ball more, they’re playing well on defense,” he said. “As a team, they’re playing with a lot more confidence. That’s the biggest thing that jumps off the film, the playmaking, consistency, and the positive yardage.”

  • Shaw said playing sound defense will be the key to a Card win. “It’s knowing your responsibilities. With good pass protection, their quarterback is going to find the open guy. If you’re two steps out of place, that ball’s going to go right past. Secondly, we’ve got to make open-field tackles. They make you play sideline to sideline. You may be one-on-one with a guy, and you have to get him down while the rest of the troops rally to help you. Finally, We’ve got to try and get pressure. You can’t let him sit back there and pick us apart, and you can’t give up the deep ones. They can get you little by little, or by big chunks.”

  • Stanford defensive end Aziz Shittu channeled his inner Phil Jackson this week when asked about the Cougar offense. “It’s going to be a test of wills all night,” he said. “The first 20 rushes, you’re not going to get close. But it’s going to be that 21st rush, that 22nd rush where you’ve got to keep on coming. That’s going to be the time where you get home and get a hit on the quarterback.”

  • Asked about his affinity for the pro-style offense in a league full of spread attacks, Shaw said this week he likes it for two reasons. First, he was schooled in it by greats in the game. “The second reason is: It works. And it’s always worked. If you do it well and execute it right and you put guys in position to make plays, it works. A lot of times, there’s a lot of stat-chasing out there, if you go faster you get more yards. That stuff never really appeals to me. I want to do whatever it takes to win a football game. Bottom line is, I like it and it works.”

  • Kickoff Saturday is set for 7:30 p.m. in what is expected to be a packed Martin Stadium. The game will be televised by ESPN. The Cougars are 5-2 and Stanford is 6-1.


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