Stanford 30, Cougs 28: Anatomy of a gut punch

THE HARDER YOU work, the harder it is to accept defeat. And so it must have been excruciating for Washington State, who did a lot of things right and especially in the first half, to fall 30-28 to No. 8 Stanford on Halloween night. WSU had a chance to win it at the end but Erik Powell, who was dead solid perfect on his first five field goal attempts, missed a 43-yarder as time expired.

WSU’s defense -- and shockingly so -- dominated the first half of play as WSU led 12-3 at the break.  In the second half, Stanford finally found something that worked offensively: the quarterback keeper.

WSU time and time again in the first half smothered Stanford -- run and pass. But over the final two quarters, WSU time and time again failed to hold the edge and Card QB Kevin Hogan burned WSU. He finished with 14 carries for 112 ground yards and two rushing TDs.

On a rainy and windswept night when the high-powered Cougar O uncharacteristically suffered through fits and spurts,  the crimson stop corps smacked Stanford in the mouth in the first half. They kicked sand in the Card’s face. Then, they went to work on them.  But it wouldn’t last.

Up front, Hercules Mata’afa, in his most extensive playing time to date, was a whirling dervish of pain early on. His d-line teammates, including Destiny Vaeao, Robert Barber and Darryl Paulo, didn’t let Stanford breathe in the first half.  They held Stanford to 85 yards of total offense over the first 30 minutes. WSU took the ball away from Stanford twice in the first half and three times overall.  They racked up four sacks, all in the first half (Vaeao, Barber, Paulo, Palacio). 

But WSU let Stanford hang around -- the Cougar offense was unable punch the ball into the end zone on four of its first five trips into the red zone.  WSU suddenly found themselves trailing 27-22 at the start of the fourth quarter and all the ‘mo was on the Card sideline.

Falk and the Cougar O responded. Twice.

Falk found Cracraft in the end zone to put WSU back ahead 28-27 midway through the fourth quarter and after Stanford kicked a field goal, Luke Falk converted a fourth-and-seven with a 23-yard strike to Dom Williams in the final moments. A few plays later, Powell’s attempt from the left hash with four seconds left sailed wide right.

All-purpose Stanford yardage cyborg Christian McCaffrey was held by the Cougar D to 52 yards on 13 carries in the first half, while Hogan was 7 of 12 for 56 yards and one pick. McCaffrey finished with 66 yards on 17 carries and Hogan was just 10-18 passing for 86 hashes. But his second half ground yards were a killer.
“Offensively, we squandered the whole first half,” said a perturbed Mike Leach at halftime on ESPN. 

Falk has been sublime in recent weeks but never quite found his rhythm on a night when the rain pelted hard down from above and strong wind gusts made every first half pass an adventure.

At the end of the first half, though, WSU had outrushed Stanford. Gerard Wicks finished with 78 yards on 12 touches(6.5 ypc). Falk, on a decidedly off night against a very tough defense, still threw for 354 yards on 35-61 passing with two TDs and two interceptions. But it wasn’t enough.

WSU’s special teams were solid. The Cougs pooch kicked or squibbed it on kickoffs and the way the D was playing early on, it really didn’t matter that Stanford often started on their own 35-40 yard line, or better.

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