One, Stanford’s second half adjustments on offense and secondly, their pregame preparation on defense.
Saturday in Pullman was nearly a Halloween night to remember. Washington State went toe to toe with a top 10 team and it appeared Stanford would be the one who flinched first. Unfortunately for Wazzu the Cardinal’s patient, disciplined style of play forced the Cougars into a series of mistakes that completely changed the second half and a 30-28 loss was the result.
As good as Washington State was on Saturday night, they can still learn a lot from a team like Stanford. The Cougars came out fast and took them by surprise, especially with their defensive intensity. But like good teams so often do, the Cardinal weathered the storm and slowly chipped away at the lead.
Here’s how Stanford took advantage of WSU with their adjustments at half and in their game week practice and preparation.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has done an incredible job with the Washington State stop corps in his first season. Not only has he and the defensive staff done a great job with game planning, he has the entire unit playing with passion and intensity.
Saturday’s result is going to be particularly tough for him to swallow because of how close the defense was to pitching the perfect game they needed.
In the end it was David Shaw’s ability to make adjustments in the second half that changed the momentum for Stanford. Yes, using Kevin Hogan’s ability to run was a big piece but that was just a small part of it.
Most of the first half, the Cardinal either tried to run downhill at the Cougs from their jumbo package or drop back and pass from the shotgun.
That played right into the game plan of Grinch.
Every time Stanford went to the jumbo, the Cougars took out a defensive back and brought in an extra defensive lineman. When the Cardinal overloaded a side with extra offensive lineman, WSU would shift their front to have three lineman and two linebackers on that side. They did a great job of stymieing the package that Stanford had a lot of success with in recent games and previous seasons.
In the second half, Shaw decided to get the Cougar D running sideline to sideline, instead of just pounding the ball into the heart of the defense. He did this with a combination of outside runs as well as quick screens to the receivers. The effect was two-fold.
Eventually the WSU defenders started to overpursue, and they missed tackles due to fatigue. This led to game-changing runs by both Hogan (and also Christian McCaffrey) in the second half.
As well as the Washington State offense moved the ball on Saturday, it sputtered at the worst times. Four red zone trips with only field goals to show for it was tough to watch. WSU missed a few opportunities on dropped or missed passes, but also had very little open in the passing game because of how prepared Stanford was for the Cougs.
Indeed, the Cardinal did a great job in recognition of many of the more traditional patterns that the Cougars run. Last week I mentioned how effective WSU has been running the mesh concepts throughout this season. Against Stanford, the mesh was a complete non-factor, particularly inside the 20-yard line.
WSU only hit the shallow cross one time and Luke Falk missed on multiple attempts at throwing the out route to the wide side of the field. One of those misses included his first interception of the game in the fourth quarter.
After the game, Stanford DB Quenton Meeks who picked off Falk twice, was quoted as saying that he knew it was coming and simply had to trust his preparation. You can see on the film that as soon as the slot receiver runs away from him on a shallow, Meeks ran directly to the out route run by the primary wide receiver.
This tells me that the Stanford defensive coaches did a great job scouting the Washington State offense.
Although the Air Raid doesn’t consist of a large playbook and it relies on execution rather than deception, generally there is enough variety and the team executes the concepts so well that it is difficult to stop. However, if the defensive players on the field recognize tendencies, it becomes much more difficult on the offense to execute consistently and WSU-Stanford was a textbook example.
Rarely did we see the Cougars hit the middle of the field in the passing game, which has become a staple for Falk and Co. The majority of their big plays came off of back shoulder throws on the outside or on catch and runs in the screen game.
The pregame prep by Stanford really limited Washington State because in the red zone they could not rely on many of their go-to play calls.
With all that being said, this one hurts immensely because this game still should have been won by Washington State.
Much like the loss to Cal, the Cougar offense could not match the inspired play of its defense. Both games are great examples of how small the margin for error is in the Pac-12. A single play here or there and maybe Washington State comes away with a win.
Regardless, the Cougars showed they are an improving football team and can compete with anyone.
Heading into this final four game stretch of the regular season there has to be continued development on both sides of the ball.
The defense has to execute for four quarters and the offense must find a way to more effectively game plan against tougher defenses. This Saturday against Arizona State (12:30 p.m., FS-1) is going to present another unique challenge -- as well as an opportunity for both sides to see if they can bounce back.
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And from 2004-2007, he threw for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing five years in the Canadian Football League: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.