Stanford, CA (Sports Network) - In one of only two home games that it has the rest of the season, the 19th-ranked Stanford Cardinal will host the reeling Washington State Cougars in a Pac-12 conference matchup at Stanford Stadium on Saturday.
Things have not gone the Cougars' way in their first season under head coach Mike Leach. Despite Leach's presence the squad has gone just 2-5 and is currently riding a four-game losing streak that dates back to mid-September. The only wins this season have come against FCS foe Eastern Washington and a 1-7 UNLV squad. Most recently Washington State dropped a 31-17 decision to California before a bye last weekend.
"I thought we played really hard but I think we missed some opportunities in key situations," Leach said in a press conference last Monday. "We're a team that either tightens up or tries to make too much happen, gets frantic and tries to get all of it in one play."
Stanford enters this game coming off a 21-3 win over rival California in the 115th installment of the 'Big Game'. The win soothed some of the pain of a crushing 20-13 overtime loss to Notre Dame in South Bend two weeks ago when Stepfan Taylor was stopped on a controversial fourth and goal play at the end of overtime. Stanford is now 5-2 overall this season and 3-1 in conference play.
This series dates back to 1936 with this game being the 63rd installment. In that time Stanford has amassed a 36-25-1 record against Washington State including victories in each of the last four meetings. Last season Stanford posted a 44-14 win in Pullman behind a strong defensive effort that allowed only 257 yards of total offense to the Cougars.
Lauded during his career for his offensive prowess, Leach has yet to find the same type of success early in his tenure at Washington State. The Cougars are ranked just ninth in the Pac-12 in total offense (362.9 ypg) and scoring offense (21.1 ppg). Still Leach has remained true to his philosophy relying almost exclusively on the pass. The Cougars throw for 322.3 yards per game, which is second in the Pac-12, while rushing for only 40.6 yards which is second to last in the nation.
For a team that is so reliant on the pass, Washington State has not really had consistency at quarterback. Jeff Tuel began the season as the starter but Connor Halliday took over after Tuel struggled. In the loss to California, Halliday threw two early interceptions and was pulled in favor of Tuel who threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-53 passing. Tuel's number have been superior this season as he has completed 65.5 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and three interceptions. Halliday has completed only 52.9 percent of his throws, with nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
No matter who has been throwing to him, Marquess Wilson has continued to have success. Wilson eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark for his career with an 87-yard effort against California and has caught a pass in all 31 games of his career. He is only the 16th player in Pac-12 history to reach 3,000 career receiving yards. Wilson has a team-high in receptions (38), yards (640) and touchdowns (5) this season.
Isiah Myers (37 receptions, 380 yards, 4 TDs), Brett Bartolone (33 receptions, 267 yards, 3 TDs) and Gabe Marks (28 receptions, 404 yards, 2 TDs) have also been important targets in the passing game.
As would be expected of a team with only a 2-5 record, Washington State has not had a great deal of success on defense either. The Cougars are 10th in the Pac-12 in both scoring (30.4 ppg) and total defense (461.7 ypg). The unit has really struggled to end drives effectively with teams converting at a Pac-12 high rate of 48.7 percent on third down.
"Our overall physicality on both sides of the ball. Especially on defense. (Stanford) like's to pound the ball," defensive end Travis Long said in explaining how the team needed to improve. "We're going to have to out- physical them if we're going to have any success to force them into throwing situations."
Deone Bucannon has played very well in the secondary despite the team's defensive shortcomings, amassing a team-high 60 tackles and four interceptions. Travis Long has also been a bright spot for the unit with 10 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
The Cardinal like to get their ground game going. This season Stanford has had 261 running plays to 215 pass plays. A key to the play-calling has been the confidence that head coach David Shaw has in his workhorse running back Stepfan Taylor. The senior has rushed for 846 yards and six touchdowns on 175 carries this season. Taylor's rushing yards ranks third in the Pac-12. No other back on the team has more than 100 yards or 21 carries.
For all of Taylor's efforts the Cardinal are still a mediocre offensive team at best in comparison to the rest of the conference. Stanford is ranked eighth in total yards (381.7 ypg) and sixth in scoring (27.4 ppg) in the Pac-12.
Those struggles come from the drop off the team has seen in the passing game with Josh Nunes taking over for now Indianapolis Colt Andrew Luck. Nunes has shown flashes of ability this season but has completed only 53 percent of his pass attempts for 1.484 yards and nine touchdowns to go with seven interceptions.
Nunes has relied heavily on check down passes to backs and tight ends with Zach Ertz leading the team with 31 receptions and 505 yards, while Taylor is second with 21 receptions. Ertz's 505 yards is almost twice as much as the next most productive receiver Levine Toilolo (288 yards).
Stanford has excelled on defense. The Cardinal are giving up 347.7 yards per game (fourth in the Pac-12) but have been especially stingy against he run with teams picking up only 77 yards per game on the ground. That is the best mark in the Pac-12 this season and the fourth best in the nation overall.
Chase Thomas cemented himself as the key to Stanford's defensive success in the win over California. Thomas had three tackles for loss, including a sack and a forced fumble.
"We preach stopping the run every week," Thomas, who was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. First things first, stop the run and make them one dimensional and then get after them in the pass rush."
That pass rush has been strong for the Cardinal with the team ranked fourth in sacks (22) and second in tackles for loss (61) in the Pac-12.