Published October 26, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. – A power running game and a dominant defense against an Air Raid offense that has yet to take flight.
The styles of Stanford and Washington State couldn't be more different. As of now, neither are their places in the Pac-12 North Division race.
The No. 19 Cardinal (5-2, 3-1) look to stay in control of their league title hopes when they host the Cougars on Saturday, beginning two straight games against far inferior opponents than they've faced in recent weeks. Washington State (2-5, 0-4) is still winless in Pac-12 play under new coach Mike Leach and has four lousy losses in a row.
With no margin for error in the conference, that's all the motivation Stanford needs starting a stretch against cellar dwellers Washington State and Colorado (1-6, 1-3) before matchups with seventh-ranked Oregon State and at No. 2 Oregon.
"We're still able to meet all our goals," Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes said. "We just need to keep winning. Every game is going to be a big game from here on out."
If Stanford sought anything extra to stay focused, all it has to do is look at how the team fared against a similar spread offense last time.
The Cardinal defense has been dominant for all but one game this season: a 54-48 overtime victory against Arizona on Oct. 6, when Nunes rallied Stanford from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter. They allowed 617 total yards — including 491 yards passing — against Rich Rodriguez's aerial offense and struggled to keep up with the fast pace.
The offense still has been mistake-prone, too.
Stanford's 21-3 win at rival California last week could have been — and perhaps should have been — even more one-sided after the Cardinal outrushed the Golden Bears 252 to 3 yards. Nunes threw an interception and lost a fumble, and Jordan Williamson missed two field goals.
"We're not nearly as good as we can be," Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt said. "That alone is what should drive us. We haven't put together a game that's even close to four quarters of good football."
The Cougars have not been good for most of the season.
At one point, Leach likened his seniors to an "empty corpse." He saw an improved attitude in a 31-17 home loss to Cal two weeks ago, saying "we weren't very corpselike on the sideline."
Coming off a bye and getting ready to play in Silicon Valley, the never-afraid-to-say-anything Leach even banned his players from posting on Twitter. He declined to say what prompted the decision.
For a team that relies so heavily on the pass, there still is not a clear-cut choice at starting quarterback either.
Jeff Tuel is back on top in a competition that seems to change by the possession. Leach had settled on Connor Halliday as the starting quarterback the past five games until the sophomore threw two first-quarter interceptions in a 31-17 home loss to Cal and got benched.
Tuel entered the game and threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He took the majority of snaps with the first-team offense in practice and is expected to start at Stanford Stadium, where the Cardinal have won six straight and 17 of the last 18 games.
"We're not very consistent," Leach said. "We need to get good everywhere. I don't think it's any one thing. It's a combination of not being as sharp or experienced as we could be in a number of positions."
Stanford coach David Shaw praised Leach and Rodriguez for their innovative offenses when they first joined the Pac-12 this season.
After what Rodriguez's Arizona team did during Stanford's last home game, Shaw only has more respect for Leach's schemes. The architect of the Air Raid at Texas Tech just hasn't had the same consistent production at Washington State.
"They've had some spots where they are just dynamic," Shaw said.
He especially attributed those bursts to wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who has 38 receptions for 640 yards and five touchdowns. If nothing else, Wilson's athleticism has the Cardinal cornerbacks wary of Washington State's capabilities.
"He's a pretty good receiver. He has great ball skills and he'll go up and get the ball and he also has some speed," said freshman cornerback Alex Carter, who is expected to make his second collegiate start. "You have to be careful."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP