Published January 13, 2015
Fresh off a convincing win over a nationally- ranked Arizona State squad in its Pac-12 opener, the fifth-ranked Stanford Cardinal will travel north to face the Washington State Cougars at CenturyLink Field.
Although its games have not ended in the same type of lopsided routs as Oregon, Stanford is making a strong case as the favorite in the Pac-12. The defending conference champions dispatched of then No. 23 Arizona State last weekend, 42-28, after convincing wins against San Jose State (34-13) and Army (34-20). Stanford has gone 3-0 to start the season in four straight years, the first time that has happened since 1908-11.
On the other side, Washington State is hungry to prove that its 3-1 start to the season is no fluke. For a team that won three games all of last year, optimism has begun to rise in Mike Leach's second year at the helm. The Cougars took a tough loss in the season opener against Auburn (31-24) but have won three straight since, including a 10-7 win on the road over USC in their first conference matchup.
Henry Anderson wrapped up Jeff Tuel at the Stanford 27-yard line as time expired, to preserve a 24-17 victory for the Cardinal last year against the Cougars. The win was the fifth straight in the series for Stanford and improved its all-time series lead to 37-25-1.
Tyler Gaffney has continued to impress as the starting running back for the Cardinal. The senior rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries against Arizona State. On the year, Gaffney has 331 rushing yards to go with five scores on 59 carries, as he has done a fine job in replacing Stepfan Taylor. Anthony Wilkerson also deserves some credit for keeping the Cardinal strong on the ground with 144 yards on 31 carries.
The dependable play that the Cardinal have received in the backfield has given Kevin Hogan some room to breathe and develop as a signal caller. Hogan has completed a solid 62.9 percent of his pass attempts for 546 yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. Though he is not being asked to carry the offense, Hogan has done a good job of keeping it steady.
Ty Montgomery has clearly been the go-to receiver. Montgomery has 14 receptions for 273 yards and four scores. While those numbers certainly wouldn't be near the top of any conference rankings, Montgomery has been far and away the most productive of any Stanford receiver. Devon Cajuste is second on the team in receptions (six), yards (129) and touchdowns (one).
"I love our run game so much, being able to throw the ball down field opens up the run game even more," Montgomery said of how the Stanford offense has run this season. "We're able to impose our will on people and the passing game wasn't as strong (last year) and now it's stronger and it's a lot easier for us. So I love what we do."
The Stanford defense looked almost mortal against the Sun Devils on Saturday. For a team that hangs its hat on that side of the ball, the Cardinal looked more out of sync than usual, allowing 417 total yards. Stanford did look as solid as ever up front, collecting 10 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Shayne Skov has to no one's surprise, taken on the leader's role for a Stanford unit which ranks just eighth in the Pac-12 in total yards allowed (337.0 ypg). Skov has a team-high 24 tackles, including a sack. Trent Murphy (10 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) has been playing well as a pass rusher. Safety Ed Reynolds (23 tackles) was ejected against Arizona State per the new targeting rules and is expected to miss the first half of this Saturday's game.
It took a little longer than expected, but Leach may have finally found the quarterback/receiver combination for his Air Raid system. Connor Halliday has shown improvement as a passer this season and has thrown for 1,288 yards, completing 66.3 percent of his passes. Unfortunately Halliday has still had a tendency to try to force passes as he has 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
However, Halliday's rapport with Gabe Marks has been something special. Marks has brought in 31 passes for 348 yards and three scores already this season. Halliday may favor Marks, but he has spread around the ball with five different receivers with at least 10 catches already. Dominique Williams (10 receptions, 241 yards, three TDs) is the most dangerous of those options.
Washington State does not pretend to be a team that will run the ball well, as the Cougars have totaled 1,315 yards through the air and just 252 yards on 77 attempts on the ground.
What has been really surprising about the Cougars' early improvement has been how well they have played on defense. Washington State has allowed teams to score just 12 points per game, limiting them to 265.2 yards each week. Now the Cougars need to prove that they can keep that kind of success going.
Deone Bucannon (35 tackles, two INT) is playing at an extremely high level and right now looks about as close to a lock for all-conference honors as any defender in the league. Cyrus Coen (27 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and Darryl Monroe (31 tackles, 2.0 sacks) are the top pass rushers for WSU.
This is clearly a big test for Washington State, which is looking to prove that it belongs in the Pac-12 title conversation. That's not exactly how the Cougars are looking at it.
"It's the same as we prepare for every game. Go to practice, practice hard, catch the ball. If we catch the ball we will do fine," said Marks. "As long as we go in there and make our plays, it will be a good game."