Stanford 101: Card & Cougs raise the stakes

STANFORD WAS SUMMARILY crushed by UW last Friday, and the Huskies’ timing was perfect. The Cardinal offensive line has yet to gel, and their secondary has been depleted by injuries. Stanford still packs a punch, but for the moment they are vulnerable. With the right mindset, the Cougs have a real opportunity to grab a win before the Card can collect themselves.

AT A GLANCE: Cougars (2-2) vs Cardinal (4-1)

7:30 p.m. PT

Stanford Stadium (50,424)


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Stanford by 7 1/2 (originally opened at 12 ½ points)

Washington State lost 30-28 in 2015 in Pullman.

Stanford leads 40-25-1.

Cougs 31, Cardinal 27

QB Ryan Burns: Since winning the starting job in fall camp, Burns has been efficient but unproductive as a passer. He has limited interceptions and has completed 63 percent of his passes, but he’s also averaged just 136 passing yards per game. He has a great arm, but has been very conservative to this point.

RB Christian McCaffrey: After breaking the NCAA record for all-purpose yards in 2015, McCaffrey has become an even bigger focus of the Stanford offense this season. He accounts for 55 percent of all offensive touches and 52 percent of Stanford's yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for McCaffrey, he continues to garner more focus from defenses as a result. His rushing average has dropped from 6.0 yards to 5.3, and his average reception has dropped from 14.3 hashes to 8.8.

Stanford has faced a brutal schedule, but that doesn't excuse having the No. 122-ranked offense in college football. McCaffrey is averaging 121 rushing yards per game, but the passing game simply is not backing him up. The Cardinal are generating but 149 passing yards per game -- that puts a massive amount of pressure on the defense to keep the game under control. That plan finally imploded against UW, as the Cardinal looked helpless to keep pace in a shootout.

The Cougs showed everyone how to slow McCaffrey last year, holding him to his least yards in a Pac-12 game.  It is pointless to try and play containment against a guy who works so well in space. WSU went right after him at the point of attack (including nose tackle Robert Barber, pictured above) and it gave McCaffrey trouble. Much like Oregon's Royce Freeman, McCaffrey will inevitably break a big play or three, but the Cougs need to limit the consistency of rushing attack, and make Stanford beat them on third-and-long.

Key Stat
Four Passing Touchdowns: The Cardinal passing game has delivered just one touchdown per game in 2016.

DE/DT Solomon Thomas: While double teams have limited his production, Thomas is one of the best defensive linemen in the conference.

CB's Quenton Meeks and Alija Holder: Both starting corners were out at against UW with undisclosed injuries, and their replacements look very lost. David Shaw said they were both “likely” to miss the WSU game but I’m waiting to see if they make miraculous recoveries. If Stanford is indeed without them, it is a huge concern for the Cardinal.

FS Zach Hoffpaiur: The senior took the 2015 season off to go play professional baseball, but has returned to lead the team in tackles so far this year.

Stanford runs a base 4-3 defense, which should be encouraging after the way WSU shredded Oregon's 4-3 last week. Unlike the Ducks however, the Cardinal are better tacklers -- yards will be harder to come by for Wazzu. The secondary has been Stanford's weak point, and injuries are compounding the problem.

The strategy depends on Stanford's situation at cornerback. If Meeks and/or Holder are still out, Falk needs to work the edges of the field. The Cardinal defenders looked hopeless against UW's receivers, and WSU can compound the problem by incorporating even more targets. If the regular corners are back in the mix, WSU should run a more balanced attack, but they will need to be patient with it. Stanford is a team that lives off their opponent's mistakes, and can strangle you if they get a lead to work with. The Cougar offense needs to try to turn the game into a shootout, but points won't come easy. Forcing the issue will just create turnovers.

Key Stat
No. 32-ranked scoring defense: This stat is actually pretty misleading after the UW game. Kansas State, USC, and UCLA averaged only 12 points per game against the stout Cardinal defense.

Say, is that Christian McCaffrey back there?!  Just punt the ball out of bounds. This would be a sound strategy for any team against McCaffrey, but given WSU's difficulty in recent years on punt coverage it seems particularly prudent. On kickoffs, it is similarly important to keep it out of McCaffrey’s hands, even if you give Stanford great field position in the process.

- The Cardinal get an extra day to prepare for WSU, which might make a huge difference in getting players healthy.

- WSU remains an afterthought in the Pac-12 division title race among the masses, but beating Stanford would shake things up dramatically in the North. The Cardinal would likely fall two games behind both Washington schools, with losing tiebreaker scenarios against WSU and UW to boot.

RELATED STORY: Shaw says 3 starters "likely" out for WSU-Stanford

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