Stanford looks to get back on track against Washington State

Oct. 7, 2016, 3:30 a.m.

It was a Halloween night that turned into a horror story. And, 12 months later, the anguish of that haunting remains fresh for those victims who witnessed it up close.

As Erik Powell’s kick floated wide right in the waning seconds of last year’s classic between Stanford and Washington State, many destinies were forever altered. The Cardinal kept their conference title and College Football Playoff hopes alive. The Cougars, on the other hand, lost their shot at seizing control of the Pac-12 North and limped to the finish line with a blowout loss at the hands of Washington in the final week of the regular season.

The bitterness, though, soon hardened into a steely resolve. Wide receiver Gabe Marks, for example, decided to return for his final year of eligibility in part to take care of Wazzu’s unfinished business with the Cardinal. The Cougars, fresh off of a 51-33 beatdown of Oregon, are peaking at just the right time to settle the score.

The people of the Palouse, the Cougar faithful, haven’t forgotten what happened last year, and they are ready for their shot at revenge as Washington State (2-2, 1-0 Pac-12) hits the road to take on No. 15 Stanford (3-1, 2-1 Pac-12) in another critical North division showdown.

In an instance of history repeating itself in the most shocking of fashions, the Cougars again began the season with an upset loss at the hands of an FCS team — this time a 45-42 defeat to Eastern Washington. The trendy narrative of Wazzu as this season’s Pac-12 dark horse took a nosedive before conference play even began, but with two blowout wins in its last two games — against Idaho and Oregon — Mike Leach’s crew of marauders in pads seems to have reignited its high-powered offense and swashbuckling identity.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal enter this game on anything but a high note after suffering their worst loss in a decade, a 44-6 thrashing in Seattle against No. 5 Washington, a game in which Stanford gained the fewest yards (218) and gave up the most sacks (8) in the David Shaw era.

Adding injury to insult for Stanford this week was news that starting corners Quenton Meeks, one of the heroes of last year’s game in Pullman as a freshman, and junior Alijah Holder will likely miss their second straight game, though the duo have returned to practice in a limited capacity. In addition, Shaw also officially ruled out junior fullback Daniel Marx and senior wide receiver Francis Owusu and called junior right tackle Casey Tucker’s availability for Saturday “unlikely.”

Junior offensive lineman Brandon Fanaika progressed well during the week and should play, according to Shaw, and might even start at guard, with senior David Bright likely to move to tackle in Tucker’s absence. Senior tight end Greg Taboada might also return to action after getting banged up in Stanford’s win over UCLA; the final assessment on his status will be a game-time decision following on-field warmups.

Playing shorthanded in the secondary once again, Stanford will face a particularly strong challenge from the Cougars’ notorious Air Raid offense led by quarterback Luke Falk. The senior quarterback has completed an astounding 74 percent of his passes, connecting on 153 of 206 attempts and throwing for 1,495 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. Flanking Falk on the outside to complete this dangerous passing attack are Marks, who has already grabbed five touchdowns this season, sophomore Tavares Martin, senior River Cracraft and sophomore Kyle Sweet. The foursome have already accumulated 922 yards receiving combined this season and will look to take advantage of a thin Stanford secondary that had its fair share of struggles against the Huskies.

“They throw a lot, so we have to attack the passer,” said senior defensive end Eric Cotton. “If you get in the quarterback’s head, you change the game. We’re going to get in there and get in those B-gaps and make sure he doesn’t have lanes to throw.”

Fixating solely on the Wazzu passing attack, however, would do a major disservice to the Cougars’ running game which has turned many heads this season. With junior Keith Harrington moving back to receiver, Washington State’s “Earth, Wind and Fire” backfield trio of Harrington, Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow has been retired, but a new trio consisting of Wicks, Morrow and freshman James Williams has emerged as a serious threat. Williams leads the way with 231 yards at a clip of 7.7 yards per carry.

“I thought that nationally, last year, Mike Leach didn’t get enough credit for what he did. The conflict that he puts you in with this Air Raid passing attack and now a run game that’s viable, downhill and physical with multiple runners that can hurt you. That combination is really, really tough. It keeps you honest,” Shaw said.

Defensively, the Cougars rank 40th in the nation with 23.3 points allowed per game and generally fail to move the attention needle in the same manner as their offensive counterparts. The numbers, though, only tell a fraction of the story. Washington State also returns second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch who last year concocted one of the best gameplans to slow down Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey, who gained 107 yards on 22 carries — a relatively bad week by the sky-high standards of No. 5. Grinch is expected to implement a similar plan centered on stopping McCaffrey this time around, and Shaw believes that the Cougars have the personnel to put it into action.

“I expect to see what we saw last year, and I expect to see what we saw last week against Oregon,” Shaw said of the Washington State defense. “They’re an active front. They’re a physical front. We got to do a better job of keeping guys blocked. These guys get off blocks.”

“We know what Christian can do when he gets through the line of scrimmage, but a defense like this is going to make it tough.”

From 2015-16, the state of the Stanford football squad heading into this matchup has been starkly different. Last year, Stanford was flying high after a string of comfortable victories driven by an offense capable of scoring at will and saw its close call in Pullman as a chance to “punch adversity in the mouth,” in the words of Kevin Hogan. This time around, adversity has already clocked the Cardinal with a right hook to the face. The team’s focus will instead be on getting back up to continue the fight.

Playing banged up against a talented team hitting its stride, the challenge awaiting the Cardinal looks formidable, but the focus amongst the team all week is building on the lessons of last week and returning to playing a high level of football.

“You either win or you learn,” said junior defensive end Harrison Phillips. “We might have failed, but we learned a thousand ways to improve. That’s probably the biggest thing that we could take away. You have to view it in a positive light. Because if you get wrapped up in the negatives, things can come crashing down.”

Stanford will have a chance to put those lessons into action at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday against the visiting Cougars. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.


Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘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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