Analysis and nuggets aplenty for WSU fans in the Stanford 101

GAMEDAY SHMAMEDAY, the Cougs are in the national spotlight Halloween night with or without a couple TV pregame trucks rolling into town. With the top spot in the Pac-12 North on the line against a physical Cardinal squad, Washington State will need to play with confidence and resiliency. But this just in: as far as conference favorites go, Stanford isn't all that scary.

Cougars (5-2) vs Cardinal (6-1) AT A GLANCE

KICKOFF:
7:30 p.m. PT

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
ESPN

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LATEST LINE:
Stanford by 11

LAST MEETING:
Stanford won 34-17 last year in Palo Alto.

THE SERIES:
Stanford leads 39-25-1.

MATT MOORE’s PREDICTION:
Cougs 33, Cardinal 30

THE CARDINAL ON OFFENSE:

Players to Know
QB Kevin Hogan: The senior quarterback already has two conference titles under his belt, but largely in a caretaker role.  He worked hard this offseason to improve his decision making with Stanford's virtual reality software and it looks like it has worked, with Hogan ranking No. 7 nationally among quarterbacks in passing efficiency.

RB Christian McCaffrey: The 200-pound sophomore is on pace to shatter the NCAA record for all-purpose yards.  In seven games he has amassed 953 rushing yards, 284 receiving yards plus 581 return yards.  McCaffrey has earned the workload, but the Cardinal may be pushing the limits of what his body can handle from this chair.  So far this season, McCaffrey has twice as many touches as Hogan has pass attempts. 

Overview
Stanford's offense is so old school, it is actually becoming almost innovative. The Cardinal play smash mouth football, relying heavily on the running game and often lining up with six or seven offensive linemen plus twin tight ends.  The trend in college football towards lighter and faster defenders is giving Stanford a huge size advantage at the point of attack.  Most teams with ground and pound offenses utilize physical, bruising running backs too, but the Cardinal have thrived by handing the ball to a quick, undersized back with a nifty skillset.  Hogan balances everything out with some lethal passing here and there, but for all intents McCaffrey is the plow horse.

Strategy
McCaffrey plays running back almost like a slot receiver, running routes into traffic fearlessly.  The Cougs would do well to treat him like a wideout.  Teams are forced to stack the box to try and counter Stanford's beef up front, but they then leave themselves open to big plays by McCaffrey if he squeezes through to the second level.  The Cougs in my opinion need to double McCaffery as though he was an elite receiver, but by utilizing linebackers rather than cornerbacks.  He gets such a lion's share of the workload, the importance of decreasing his impact can't be overstated. True, David Shaw (pictured above with Mike Leach) burned WSU two years ago, surprising the Cougs by going to the deep ball early when Wazzu was stacked against the run.  And doubling McCaffrey this Saturday with ‘backers will indeed leave WSU exposed to the pass -- and particularly to Stanford's elite tight ends. But it's still the best recipe for success in my book.

Key Stat
1,818 All Purpose Yards: McCaffrey is rewriting record books as fast as the statisticians can track them, but 260 yards per game is asking for trouble in the second half of the season in my opinion for a 200-pounder. Will it show a little later in the season, or on Saturday night?

THE CARDINAL ON DEFENSE:

Players to Know

DE Aziz Shittu: At 6-3, 279-pounds, he’s the biggest of Stanford’s three down linemen. But while he and his seemingly undersized teammates on the d-line haven’t generated much of a pass rush (11 sacks, t-11th in Pac-12) Stanford is still only allowing 204.7 passing yards per game. How have they done it? Swarming to the football and making sure tackles.

LB Blake Martinez: One of seven senior starters, Martinez is a tackling machine, already posting 80 tackles this season.

CB Alijah Holder: A sophomore in Stanford’s verteran secondary, Luke Falk and the Cougar receivers may choose to test him early and often.

Overview
The Cardinal lost a ton of talent from the nation’s No. 3-ranked defense last year, but the tenacity and nasty attitude remains. As with the offense, Stanford plays old school smash-mouth football. They generally play tight, physical, man defense against the pass, betting their men can beat yours. They only switch to zone when the down and distance favor the offense. It is an efficient strategy that has yielded minimal big plays.

Strategy
 Falk can expect far tighter coverage than he has faced this year. And while it sounds counter intuitive, don’t be surprised if Stanford gets more heat on Falk than many are forecasting. But this defense is far frome invincible.  Gabe Marks and Dom Williams have shredded man coverage all season -- expect Falk to give them the chance to make plays.  Stanford doesn't blitz much at all, but a healthy amount of screens will take away some of the pressure off the offensive line. When Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington get those screens, a strong plant-and-go mindset is critical. So is ball security.

Key Stat
Time of possession: 35:36.  Leach thinks TOP is a worthless indicator of success but I respectfully disagree. Stanford ranks No. 1 nationally in time of possession and WSU’s strength is how often they can put their offense on the field. When Stanford gets the ball, they generally do not give it back.  If the Cougs cannot force some punts or takeaways, it spells trouble. But if WSU can control the game and clock as they have of late, they can shorten this tilt tremendously and that's a good thing against Stanford. They could even put Stanford in the exact position they’re not built for: playing catch up football.  Unlike most WSU games, a lesser number of possessions should be appealing to WSU fans in this one.

THE CARDINAL ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Washington State must directional kick and/or not allow McCaffrey a free path on punt returns. There is no better time for WSU to shake their special teams coverage woes than in a game like this one, where every play on special teams could end up being the difference.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-Weather could be a huge factor in this game: the latest forecast calls for rain and 15-20 mph winds during game time. That’s potentially not good news for the Cougs. That said, things are supposed to let up a bit in the second half. Plus, a little rain and wind is no excuse, as Leach has so often expressed with bitter displeasure. But on paper, Luke Falk threw for just 286 yards and two touchdowns in the cold and rain against Portland State. The good news is the strong case can be made Falk just isn't the same quarterback - he has averaged 433 yards and four TDs in the six games since the opener.

-The Cardinal have not played a road game since September 25 and their improvement during the home stand has been noteworthy.  But while the average winning margin of a Stanford home game is 43-18, when the Cardinal play on  the road, it drops to 30-24.

-Stanford is a highly competent football team.  They have balance and do just about everything well. But as conference championship contenders go, they probably aren’t ultra-intimidating in the film room.  They rank 32st in offense and 32st in defense.  And it is usually very hard to craft a top ten team with those numbers. Stanford relies on efficiency and physicality -- but in comparison to previous Stanford champions, the 2015 vintage is quite conservative, and it could be their downfall if Falk and the Cougar O can put up some early scores.

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