PALO ALTO, Calif. – A bye week provided the Washington State Cougars with extra time to prepare for the Stanford Cardinal.
Truthfully, a bye month might not be enough time to properly prepare the young Cougars for a team as big, physical and talented as the 19th-ranked Cardinal.
“There are mismatches all around the field,” WSU safety Deone Bucannon acknowledges, “but we just need to play our game and hit them in the mouth first.”
The Cougars have lost four straight games and 19 in a row against Top 25 teams. WSU is a 25-point underdog to Stanford in Las Vegas but not in Bucannon’s world.
“I’m kind of tired of the same excuses: ‘Young team’ and everything,” Bucannon said. “We’re a great team. We can play with these guys.”
Bucannon also had this to say about the 2-5 Cougars: “I very much think we’re going to go to a bowl game.”
A win today over Stanford would certainly bolster WSU’s paper-thin bowl hopes. The problem is, Stanford runs the ball extremely well, and WSU isn’t great at stopping the run. Stanford protects the quarterback quite well, and WSU does not. Both teams pressure the quarterback very well, but Stanford’s defense has been far more stout.
“We’re going to have to out-physical them if we’re going to have any success forcing them out of their run,” Cougars linebacker Travis Long said.
Inconsistent Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes has done little to erase the warm memories provided by 2011 All-America QB Andrew Luck. However, the Cardinal has a quality running back in Stepfan Taylor, who gouged California for a career-high 189 rushing yards last week.
“His balance is incredible,” Bucannon said. “He’s a strong enough guy. He’s the best running back we’re going to go up against this year, in my opinion.”
Bucannon’s game plan to stop Taylor is simple enough.
“We need to hit him, hit him hard and let him know we’re here and let him know we’re going to be here for the whole game,” Bucannon said. “Not just one half, not just one quarter, not just a couple minutes. It’s going to be the whole game.”
That would certainly please Cougars coach Mike Leach, who has watched his team get outscored 105-44 after halftime. In first halves, opponents have scored just four more points than WSU (108-104).
“We’re a little too satisfied, I think, with playing it close and not getting run out of there,” Leach said. “That’s not what we’re after.”
Some semblance of a running game would be a welcome addition to Washington State’s offense.
“When we’ve had success this year, it’s when we’ve been able to run the ball,” quarterback Jeff Tuel said.
Indeed, the Cougars’ only two wins came in their best rushing games – 108 yards against Eastern, and 83 against UNLV. The Cougars have gained just 93 rushing yards in the other five games, and twice finished with negative yardage.
It’s debatable how much WSU will be able to run against Stanford’s fourth-ranked rushing defense (77 yards allowed per game). Cougars rushing leader Teondray Caldwell (26.8 yards per game) is expected to sit out with an apparent head injury. Leon Brooks, who averages a team-high 6.5 yards per carry, may be sidelined with a possible foot injury.
Caldwell and Brooks are dangerous return men on kickoffs and punts, respectively. Senior Carl Winston, a former starter who has scored two of WSU’s three rushing touchdowns, likely will start at running back.
Tuel is set to make his first start since suffering a knee injury in the second game of the season. The senior has seen extensive action the past two games in relief of Connor Halliday, the Pacific-12 Conference interceptions leader with 11.
WASHINGTON STATE (2-5 OVERALL, 0-4 PACIFIC-12) AT STANFORD (5-2, 3-1)
3:15 p.m., Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, Calif.
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 770-AM, 104.3-FM.
The series: Stanford leads the series, 36-25-1. The Cardinal has won the past four meetings, including a 44-14 decision last year in Pullman.
What to watch: The Cougars, younger and smaller than the Cardinal, must deal with a physical, veteran team on the road. Stanford is fighting for the Pac-12 North Division title; WSU is trying to avoid a fourth straight last-place finish. Stanford’s rugged defense isn’t loaded with speed and has been vulnerable to throwing teams at times, so the pass-happy Cougars might be able to air it out. WSU’s inexperienced linebackers must deliver against a team that shows a lot of play-action and jumbo formations with two tight ends. Stanford’s run defense ranks with the nation’s best, and with WSU starting running back Teondray Caldwell out with an apparent head injury, wide receiver Bennett Bontemps – a standout running back at Puyallup High School a few years back – returned to his old position this week. Mid-70’s and sunshine were in the forecast, so WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel might be feeling the heat in more ways than one because Stanford’s talented linebackers love to blitz. Key WSU receiver Isiah Myers may be out with an injury.
The pick: Stanford 41, Washington State 23.
89Travis Long (LB)6-4245senior
The Cougars line him up everywhere; has 71/2 quarterback sacks.
10Jeff Tuel (QB) 6-3221senior
Injury-plagued player making his fifth start in two years.
86Marquess Wilson (WR)6-4185junior
Needs 154 receiving yards to crack conference’s all-time top 10.
20Deone Bucannon (SS)6-1192junior
Second in Pac-12 with 60 tackles and four interceptions (tied).
44Chase Thomas (OLB)6-4248senior
His 9 tackles for loss ties for team lead with fellow OLB Trent Murphy.
33Stepfan Taylor (RB)5-11215senior
Leads team with 120.9 rushing yards per game, 6 rushing TDs.
86Zach Ertz (TE)6-6252senior
Leads team with 31 catches, 505 receiving yards.
6Josh Nunes (QB) 6-4225junior
Has 9 TD passes, 7 interceptions; occasionally sits out a few plays.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer