The Stanford football team travels away from the Farm for the first time in two weeks on Saturday, heading north to Pullman, Wash. to tangle with a resurgent Washington State team in another Pac-12 showdown.
The No. 7 Cardinal (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) has rolled over conference opponents two weeks in a row, but the Cougars (3-2, 1-1) present a powerful aerial challenge which will test the Cardinal’s sixth-ranked defense in a way that it hasn’t been tested before.
The Cougars boast the country’s seventh-best passing attack, throwing for more than 350 yards per game and scoring more than 40 points per game. Those eye-popping stats haven’t necessarily translated into wins, though, as the Cougars lost 42-24 to San Diego State in week three, then blew an eight-point lead last week to fall to UCLA, 28-25.
For many casual Pac-12 observers, those passing numbers will be particularly shocking because the Cougars were the longtime laughingstock of the Pac-10, winning only five games over the past three years. The Cardinal has also won its last three matchups against Wazzu, including an embarrassing 58-0 blowout win at home in 2008. But these certainly aren’t your (slightly) older brother’s Cougars, and the Stanford defense understands the task at hand.
“Their record doesn’t show it, but the two games they’ve lost I believe have been close games,” said senior safety Michael Thomas. “They’re definitely playing harder, they’re playing more physical, their talent is just as much as any other team in the Pac-12.”
Head coach David Shaw attributed the Cougars’ new bite to head coach Paul Wulff, who took over the Washington State job in 2008 after leading an FCS program, Eastern Washington, to seven winning season in eight years.
“He’s a heck of a coach, he’s a good recruiter, spending time with him at our Pac-12 media days you can kind of see how he gets the guys to play,” Shaw said. “He’s a tough guy, a tough-minded guy, and you’ve seen the last two years the progression of discipline. They’re a more disciplined team than they’ve ever been. You’ve got to give him all the credit in the world, he’s done a great job.”
But perhaps the most impressive part of the Cougars’ offensive stats is the fact that the offense has been working at all this season. Junior quarterback Jeff Tuel, the returning starter from 2010, fractured his left clavicle in the season’s first game, forcing senior backup Marshall Lobbestael into the starter’s role. Since then, Lobbestael has looked like anything but the understudy, though, throwing for 1,544 yards and 15 touchdowns while completing 65.4 percent of his passes.
Tuel has been cleared to play this weekend against the Cardinal, throwing an extra wrinkle into the game plan for the Cougars’ spread offense. Although Lobbestael has been assured the starting spot, Shaw said he had spent some time preparing for both passers.
“You mainly prepare for the offense, but both guys have things that they do well, so we’ve got to be ready for both of them,” Shaw said.
He also mentioned that the air-based attack would be a good measuring stick for a Stanford defense that has yet to face a team with a powerful wide-open offense.
“I think we’ve been tested pretty well; after the game you don’t say so because you look at the stats,” Shaw said. “But this is going to be a true test for us. Can we get to the quarterback; can we play well in pass coverage; can we mix it up between coverage and pressure? It’s going to be a good test for our defense.”
The Stanford defensive backs have lived up to all comers so far, playing a critical role in a defense that allows just 10.6 points per game, and the corners and safeties had their best half of football so far last week against Colorado, only allowing three completions for 18 yards and also snagging the first interception of the season.
But despite last week’s good performance, Thomas mentioned that the defense had a little extra motivation to play well after being roughed up in last year’s contest at home against the Cougars, where Tuel threw for four touchdowns — including two in the last four minutes of the game — against the Stanford secondary.
“Just speaking for the secondary, we definitely see this as a challenge for us, and it’s probably going to be the best receiving corps we see all season,” Thomas said. “We’re not overlooking them, we don’t have to get a pep talk to get up for this team, especially after the type of fourth quarter we had against them last year where they just exploded on us, so we feel like we have something to prove against them.”
Thomas also pointed out Washington State sophomore wide receiver Marquess Wilson as a particular target of interest for the defense, as Wilson has 31 catches for 638 yards and five touchdowns this year, just a step ahead of Isiah Barton (four touchdowns) and Jared Karsetter (three).
“They look explosive; [Wilson] looks explosive as ever,” Thomas said. “He definitely had a great game against us last year and we remember that…and the rest of their receivers are just as good.”
Stanford will try to contain Washington State on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Pullman, Wash. Television coverage will be on the Versus network.