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STANFORD, Calif. – On the plane ride back from Notre Dame last weekend, Stanford players watched the Washington State-California game looking to learn about their next opponent.
One observation about the Cougars quickly emerged.
"They really don't like running the ball," Stanford tailback Remound Wright said. "I just feel bad for the running backs on that team. They don't get the ball ever."
Well, maybe once in a while.
Coming off a record-setting passing performance by Connor Halliday, Washington State (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) isn't trying to disguise the way it wants to move the ball. The Cougars will see if the "Air Raid" offense can take flight against the nation's stingiest scoring defense when they visit No. 25 Stanford (3-2, 1-1) on Friday night.
"I don't think there will be a bunch of surprises or different stuff," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They value execution over playing on the chalkboard and trying to outscheme somebody."
Leach was talking about Stanford's defense, but he just as easily could have been speaking about his own team's philosophy on offense.
The Cougars have thrown the ball on 75 percent of their plays this season, and their last game took that approach to the extreme. Halliday threw for an NCAA-record 734 yards in Washington State's 60-59 loss to Cal. He completed 49 of 70 passes with six touchdowns and was never intercepted or sacked.
The Cougars rushed 25 times for 78 yards.
Stanford's diverse defense will present a lot more problems than Cal ever could. The Cardinal, who are trying to refocus on the Pac-12 race after a non-conference loss at Notre Dame, have the country's best scoring defense (8.6 points) and are ranked second in total defense (232 yards) and passing defense (107 yards) per game.
One-dimensional teams don't usually fare well against Stanford, either, and Washington State knows that as well as anybody. The Cardinal crushed the Cougars 55-17 in Seattle last season by pressuring the quarterback and keeping the Air Raid offense grounded.
While Stanford has struggled to put up points consistently, Cardinal coach David Shaw isn't concerned about speeding things up offensively. Instead, he wants to slow things down and avoid that type of game altogether.
"If we play great defense, there's not 40 and 50 points on the board, so we don't have to score 40 and 50 points," Shaw said. "There are other teams that approach it a different way."
Here are some things to watch when Washington State and Stanford play Friday night:
RECEIVING THREAT: Halliday has been the focus of Washington State's offense, and for good reason, but he wouldn't be putting up video game-like numbers without his receivers. The Cougars had three players total at least 100 yards receiving against Cal, including Vince Mayle's school-record 263 yards. River Cracraft (172) and Dominique Williams (107) also eclipsed the century mark.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stanford All-America kick returner Ty Montgomery, who is also returning punts this season, could get his best chance in weeks to make a splash on special teams. Washington State allowed back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns last weekend, and the unit has been so bad this season that Leach dismissed special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Eric Russell on Monday.
RUNNING CARDINAL: Stanford's biggest hindrance on offense has been its stagnant power running game. Stanford had only 47 yards rushing against Notre Dame, its lowest since Oct. 27, 2007, at Washington. Shaw said the Cardinal will continue to use four running backs — Wright, Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale — behind an offensive line that is still learning how to play together.
DEFENSIVE DEFICIENCIES: While Washington State is averaging 38 points, it's giving up 35.2 points per game. The Cougars had shown improvement on defense until the Cal game, and they'll need to put up some resistance against Stanford to give Halliday and the offense more snaps.
CORNER COVERAGE: Cardinal cornerbacks Alex Carter, Wayne Lyons and Ronnie Harris will essentially be the first line of defense, tasked with playing tight coverage to give the pass rush time to get to Halliday. Stanford had two sacks against the Cougars last season.
Associated Press writer Nicholas K. Geranios in Pullman, Washington, contributed to this story.