Behind enemy lines: Washington State Cougars

Oct. 7, 2016, 3:28 a.m.

No. 15 Stanford returns home and looks ahead to a streaking Washington State team, which left Eugene, Oregon last week with a resounding victory. To preview this game, The Daily’s Vihan Lakshman spoke with sports writer Britton Ransford of about rebounding seasons, Cougar quarterback Luke Falk and which team he thinks will win this battle on the Farm.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): After losing to an FCS team Week 1 for the second straight year, the Cougars poured the points on Oregon in a 51-33 victory. What prompted Wazzu’s turnaround, and do you expect the Cougs to carry last week’s momentum into this game?

Britton Ransford (BR): Ah, yes. Washington State losing to an FCS school — a tradition unlike any other. So it goes under Mike Leach, though, as the Cougars have annually limped into Pac-12 play.

Following a maddening loss to Boise State, Leach publicly challenged his players to play tougher. They responded with back-to-back dominating outings, outscoring Idaho and Oregon a combined 107-39 and finally looking like the team many expected to compete for the Pac-12 North this season.

Washington State has proven to be a resilient bunch, for sure, and this season, for better or worse, has striking comparisons to last year’s 9-4 squad that went toe-to-toe with the conference’s best on a weekly basis.

Will this momentum continue? I’d cautiously lean towards yes, simply because they’re healthy, confident and hungry to get another shot at a Stanford team that left a sour taste in their mouths last Halloween.

TSD: In last year’s matchup, Washington State was one missed field goal away from seizing control of the Pac-12 North. Does that game still resonate with Cougar fans and players?

BR: When star receiver Gabe Marks announced he was forgoing the NFL Draft and returning for his redshirt senior season on the Palouse, he specifically referenced the loss to Stanford as the moment he knew he wanted to come back. Some unfinished business, he noted.

So, to say that game still resonates with everyone associated with Washington State would be an understatement, especially with how the rest of the season played out. The Cougars’ season likely plays out a lot differently if that field goal doesn’t sail right.

If Washington State doesn’t beat Oregon last week, I think the anticipation for Saturday night’s tilt in Palo Alto is tempered, but there’s definitely a lot of excitement for what is suddenly a pivotal early-season conference game that could have massive implications.

TSD: The Wazzu defense had more success than just about anybody in slowing down Christian McCaffrey last year. Do you expect a similar performance this time around? Who are the players on that side of the ball to keep an eye on?

BR: I can’t imagine that second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will go about his job of stopping Christian McCaffrey any differently than he did last season. Will they bottle him up like they did last season? Well, you’re talking about arguably the most talented college football player in the country, so it’d be irresponsible to say the Washington State defense can duplicate that performance, but I’d expect them to have at least some success.

It can’t hurt that they were able to, for the most part, shut down Royce Freeman and the Oregon running game last week. Eliminate Freeman’s 75-yard touchdown scamper where he broke contain on the outside, and the Cougars’ defense held Freeman to 3.3 yards per carry on 18 carries.

The defense, as a whole, seems to be coming together at the right time as well. They’re not extremely deep on the defensive line, but defensive end Hercules Mata’afa, nose tackle Robert Barber and defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale make up a formidable bunch.

Mata’afa, whom Grinch will move around all over the defensive line, had 3.5 tackles for loss last week and will need to be accounted for at all times. Middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who leads the team in tackles through four games, and all-everything defensive back Shalom Luani will also play big roles in attempting to contain McCaffrey.

The Cardinal should be able to move the ball and put themselves in positions to score, but turnovers will likely be the tale of the tape in this one. The Cougars are No. 10 in the country in turnover margin.

TSD: What sort of performance do you expect from Luke Falk against a Stanford secondary missing its starting corners?

BR: The Cougars, despite dialing up 48 passes last week against Oregon, actually did the majority of their damage on the ground, amassing 280 yards and 6 touchdowns with their three-headed running back corps of James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow.

The running backs will play a big role in this game, and the Cougars will likely try to establish the run out of the gate, but assuming Stanford’s typically tough front seven are able to have success against the Cougars’ ground raid, Falk could be in for a big night.

So far this season, Falk has taken care of the ball, but a lot of that has to do with just taking what the defense has been giving him. He’s been hesitant to take shots down the field, but with Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks out with injuries, I’d expect Leach and Falk to try to exploit the Cardinal deep down the field.

Falk is throwing the ball over 50 times per game and still completing 74 percent of this throws, good for No. 2 in the country. He has a 12-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and while he’s been far from perfect, he’s been his same consistent self. Expect that to continue Saturday against a shorthanded Cardinal secondary.

TSD: Do you have a prediction for the game?

BR: I think McCaffrey will put up some good numbers Saturday, but the rest of the Stanford offense, which has scored just two touchdowns over its last nine quarters, isn’t going to turn any heads. This, in my opinion, is going to be a defensive battle, and the team that wins the turnover battle and/or special teams battle is going to come out on top.

The betting line, which opened with Stanford as 12.5-point favorites, has plummeted to around a touchdown, and I think that’s about right. Stanford hasn’t lost back-to-back games since 2009, and because I have no faith in the Cougars’ special teams, I’ll take the Cardinal in another close one, 30-27. How’s that for waxing poetic for a couple hundred words then switching gears?


Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ and Britton Ransford at ransfordbk ‘at’

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at'

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