Stanford football fans nearly experienced their ultimate Halloween nightmare on Saturday night when then-No. 8 Stanford (7-1, 6-0 Pac-12) narrowly beat unranked Washington State (5-3, 3-2) after the Cougars missed a 43-yard field goal with four seconds left in the game. Potential Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey was held to only 107 rushing yards against the Cougars, his lowest number since Stanford played USC on Sept. 19. Additionally, Stanford was held out of the endzone for the entire first half and made it into the red zone only once, which resulted in a field goal and the entirety of the team’s points for the first half. So what exactly went wrong for the Cardinal against Washington State, and are they at risk for a similar breakdown at Colorado this Saturday? We asked Daily sports writers Laura Stickells, Alexa Philippou and Taylor Duarte to share their thoughts.
Laura Stickells: I’ve heard plenty of people over the past few days try to attribute Stanford’s struggles against the Cougars to overconfidence or the weather, and those elements could have been contributing factors, but I have a hard time believing that they played the biggest role.
The Washington State linemen jamming the box, limiting McCaffrey to only 51 rushing yards in the first half, were definitely Stanford’s greatest obstacle. Hogan was then forced to use his arm, which was a problem itself, because Hogan’s not out there to throw 60 passes a game like Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk. However, in the second half, the Cougars’ strategy became their own poison. They were so dialed in on McCaffrey that just a simple fake could send all the linemen running in the wrong direction, leaving the field open for a Hogan touchdown. The Washington State defense had to respond by spreading out in order to block Hogan too, leaving more lanes open for McCaffrey.
But I don’t think Stanford will struggle in the same way against Colorado as it did against Washington State. Colorado is coming off a close 35-31 loss to No. 24 UCLA, losing its 20th straight game against a ranked team. So why did this game come out so close? UCLA didn’t have the chance to make big plays because Colorado controlled the ball for over 41 minutes, completely wearing out the UCLA defense. Sound like a familiar strategy?
That’s why the game against Colorado will likely come down to the guys in the trenches. If the Stanford defense can hold Colorado on third downs, keeping Stanford in control of the ball, the Cardinal should return to The Farm still a one-loss team. And I just don’t see Colorado, who is ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, limiting Stanford’s power run game.
Alexa Philippou: While many Cardinal fans were initially shocked to see the team struggle against the Cougars, particularly on the offensive front, there were several factors that made this almost a disaster in the making.
For whatever it’s worth, Stanford has historically not fared too well in road games outside the state of California — not only this past year at Northwestern, but at Oregon, Arizona State and Notre Dame last year and at Utah two years ago. Not to mention, the game on Saturday was played in heavy rain and 52-degree temperatures, conditions that the team has not played in all year and that most teams — let alone the Cardinal, who are blessed with sunny California weather most of football season — rarely see.
But it wasn’t simply the environment that made a difference. Washington State’s defense was able to pressure Hogan and stop McCaffrey more so than other opponents have been able to do this season. Was that a matter of the offensive line playing uncharacteristically poorly or one of Wazzu’s defense playing out of its mind? That may be difficult to determine, but Wazzu’s defenders certainly played aggressively from the start, which makes me think it was more of the latter.
One could argue that Stanford perhaps didn’t adjust soon enough to Wazzu’s defense’s ability to stop McCaffrey on the run and take away several options downfield. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken the team until halftime to get its offense together. But eventually, the team did make those adjustments, something that it hasn’t always done historically and has led to dropped games against teams it could’ve beaten.
While many people pass off the Buffs as the clear underdog, the issue that does scare me about Colorado is the early start time, something that was likely part of the reason why Stanford came out so flat against Northwestern. This game will be played at 10 a.m. PT, and no matter how much the team tries to prepare for an early start, it’s undeniable that it’ll be a different experience, especially since the team has played a slew of Saturday evening games this season.
Taylor Duarte: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure.” – Andy Grove
Frankly, Stanford indeed looked complacent and ready to fail Saturday night against a Wazzu team looking for the upset. Flashbacks of the meager offensive performance against Northwestern came flooding back.
So what went wrong? Maybe it was the weather in Pullman. The Cardinal don’t really know what a torrential downpour is in drought-ridden California. Maybe Stanford just got too comfortable with success. Demolishing teams had become commonplace, so the team forgot the Washington State air raid had some of its own offensive success.
And then there was Stanford’s offensive line. The Tunnel Workers’ Union looked a little disbanded that night. They were weak on the protection, allowing 4 sacks, and created limited holes for standout Christian McCaffrey to produce another 300-yard night. McCaffrey was limited to just over 100 yards rushing, stunting his highlight reel, and we really don’t want that. But on the heels of true freshman nickelback Quenton Meeks, who had 2 crucial interceptions, and quarterback Kevin Hogan’s 2 rushing touchdowns, the Cardinal finally showed some promise in the second half. The resilience shown by the team ultimately kept the season alive.
When the Cardinal venture to Colorado this weekend, Stanford must remember that its postseason hopes could have been derailed by a field goal. A similar meltdown against the Buffs seems unlikely if the team has a short memory and is not haunted by its Halloween performance. This may have been just the scare Stanford needed to propel it through the rest of the season with dominance. Complacency is its only enemy.
Contact Laura Stickells at lauraczs ‘at’ stanford.edu, Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Taylor Duarte at taylor3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.