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Trick AND treat: WSU got plenty of both

AT ONE POINT midway through the second quarter, Washington State fans had to relish what they were seeing, Following a brilliant, well executed 17-yard scamper by Gerard Wicks, Cardinal defensive end Brennan Scarlett was seen visibly shaking his head and staring upward as if to say, 'Who the heck ARE these guys?'

On a dark and dreary Halloween evening in Pullman, Washington State (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) fell 30-28 to No. 8 Stanford (7-1, 6-0 Pac-12). This wasn’t just another tough conference game, it was for the top spot in the Pac-12 North.

Washington State is developing into very good football team under the guidance of Leach and his staff -- that appeared to be a news flash for Stanford players.

That said, the first half was definitely a trick-or-treat affair for Cougar Nation.

Even the most optimistic of Cougar fans could not have predicted Stanford being tricked into managing a solitary field goal in the first half. It would be just as unlikely that same contingent of Washington State followers would suggest the WSU special teams would outscore the Cougar offense by treating fans to four field goals.

Heck, Erik Powell calmly and confidently lined up a career-tying 47-yard kick, then booted it between the uprights with enough distance to have been good from 57 yards (at least). Yes, yet another treat from an unexpected source this season: the WSU special teams.

The Cougs trotted to their locker room at the half to regroup and make adjustments that would result in drives for touchdowns rather than field goals. Likewise, Stanford coach David Shaw accepted the same opportunity.

Not only was the Cougar defense ready for two more quarters of football after intermission, the offense found some of their rhythm as well.

But it was the adjustment by Shaw which proved to be the difference in what turned out to be one of the most entertaining and contested Pac-12 games of the season.

Using a bit of trickery, Shaw switched the role of Christian McCaffrey from weapon to decoy.

The Cougar D was caught overplaying McCaffrey on Stanford’s first possession of the second half and QB Kevin Hogan dashed up the middle for a 39-yard scamper setting up the first touchdown of the game by either team.

With the clock winding down in the third quarter Hogan took off once again, this time rumbling 59 yards into the end zone.

Shaw was savvy enough to take what Mike Leach was giving him.

Leach didn’t want anything to do with McCaffrey running circles around his team, as McCaffrey had done to the last six Stanford opponents.

And so on a rainy, windy Halloween evening it seemed befitting that the poison Leach opted for ultimately did him in. It was the legs of Hogan rather than McCaffrey that carried the Cardinal to victory.

As has been the case repeatedly this season for WSU, the Cougs struggled to get all three units play their best football for the full 60 minutes.

On the heels of the defense coming out on fire, Leach’s Air Raid offense sputtered under Luke Falk. The Cougar O stumbled and stalled throughout the entire first quarter.

But despite an uneven start, the Cougs again proved they can compete with anyone in the Pac-12, including a top ten opponent. And it was a team effort, that was made crystal clear by a WSU defense flying all over the field leaving Hogan and headline-grabber McCaffrey befuddled, confused and frustrated in the first half.

Following the lead of coach Alex Grinch’s defensive unit, WSU's offense started to move the ball after about 10 minutes of futility with a measure of authority. They just ran out of time in the end.

There will be plenty of sour grapes expressed and extolled about Leach using pooch kicks and knuckleball kickoffs to avoid letting McCaffrey getting his hands on the ball. That choice gave Stanford excellent field position all night long. But it proved to be the right strategy, the last and deciding score didn't come off a WSU kickoff or punt, it came via a WSU turnover on offense.

Many fans are no doubt ranting over what appeared to everyone watching the game a strip and fumble recovery by WSU's Ivan McLennan. Well, to everyone but the replay official. It was a Stanford fumble to the naked eye but with the advantage of video footage, the Pac-12 replay official said it wasn’t.

It will also be déjà vu for some to last year's loss to Cal, when a missed 19-yard field goal determined the outcome of a hard fought game. The costume change this time around was an errant kick from 43 yards out. But kicker Erik Powell (pictured above) was why the Cougs were in position to win in the first place, having drilled five field goals before the sixth went begging.

The ultimate trick was Stanford escaping a Washington State team who could all but taste their fourth consecutive Pac-12 victory. You could easily say this game concluded on an interception by true freshman Quenton Meeks who seemed to jump from out of nowhere with 3:27 remaining.

Just don't say the Cougs didn’t fight until the very last.  To do so would be a seriously flawed analysis.

The best Washington State football team in over a decade lost to a slightly better Stanford team.

But the season isn’t over, and neither are these Cougars. A full one-third of the regular season schedule remains.  Given the way the defense played against Stanford, and the way the offense has played much of this season, the final stretch featuring ASU, UCLA, Colorado and UW figures to hold more treats than tricks for the WSU faithful.


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