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King’s Keys: Clash with the Cougars

The Daily’s King Jemison shares three keys for a Cardinal victory against Washington State

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On Nov. 11, 2006, Stanford football beat Washington 20-3 in an ugly matchup of two teams with losing records. That win snapped an 11-game losing streak for Stanford. Why does that game matter to Stanford’s matchup with Washington State this Saturday? Because not only the Cardinal facing the Cougars this Saturday — they are also facing the longest losing streak in program history since that 11-game nightmare from 2006.

Stanford’s latest losing streak stretched to six games with last week’s 35-32 loss to Colorado. Coming into the season, the home tilt with Colorado looked like perhaps the easiest game on Stanford’s schedule. After the Cardinal allowed the Buffs to take a 35-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, however, Nerd Nation was left to wonder if Stanford would find any wins in its shortened 2020 schedule.

Stanford’s fourth-quarter comeback, led by senior quarterback Davis Mills, and the passing attack both reinjected some hope into the season, even while falling short. With a full week of practice after finally getting through the bungled Pac-12 false-positive fiasco, Mills and his receivers will further develop their timing heading into next week. Maybe Stanford can turn into an offensive juggernaut and win some shootouts.

It will have to be the offense, though, because Stanford’s defense does not look ready to lead the Cardinal to wins anytime soon. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s allergy to mobile quarterbacks flared up again versus Colorado, as Buffs QB Sam Noyer ran circles around the Stanford defense all afternoon to the tune of 291 total yards and four touchdowns. After surrendering 432 yards to Colorado, Stanford sits at second-to-last in the Pac-12 and 115th nationally in defensive yards per play.

These are strange, dark times for Stanford’s program, though admittedly not nearly as dark as the end of the Walt Harris era in 2006. The Cardinal desperately need a win to garner an ounce of momentum before the season-defining tilt with Cal in a Black Friday Big Game. Washington State, despite possessing the only Pac-12 defense ranked lower than Stanford in yards-per-play allowed, will not be a walkover. The Cougars’ offense, fresh off an impressive showing in a 43-29 loss to Oregon, has been dynamic in the first two games of the Nick Rolovich Run and Shoot era, with playmaking true freshman Jayden de Laura showing promise under center. 

The combination of the two worst defenses in the Pac-12 and two talented offenses might break the Stanford Stadium scoreboard on Saturday. But even if they have to win Big-12 (or SEC?) style, the Cardinal need to summon Al Davis and just win, baby. Here are three keys to a streak-snapping #Pac12AfterDark victory for Stanford.

1) Aggressiveness early, often and always

In first-half action against Oregon and Colorado, Stanford has attempted five goals while scoring one total touchdown. Shoutout to fifth-year kicker Jet Toner for his 3-3 bounceback performance against the Buffs — but given Stanford’s defensive ineptitude, settling for three points is not a winning strategy. While the three first-half field goals against Colorado came on fourth-and-medium situations, head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard need to consider going for it on at least one of those opportunities, or at least calling plays to set up fourth-and-short opportunities where they can definitely leave the offense on the field. Simple math shows that had Stanford taken advantage of its two first-half red zone opportunities and scored touchdowns, the Cardinal would have beaten Colorado. Instead, Stanford trailed after a half in which it largely outplayed the Buffs thanks to wasted red zone chances.

Fifth-year kicker Jet Toner (26 above) went 3-3 on Saturday after a 0-4 night the weekend prior. (Photo: JOHN TODD/isiphotos.com)

Stanford cannot afford to play conservatively at any point in any game. The Cardinal’s opponents are going to score a lot of points if they do. The Colorado onslaught began in earnest early in the second half, with three walk-in touchdowns on the Buffs’ first three drives. That stretch buried Stanford so deep that even the Mills Raid could not claw the Cardinal all the way back. Maybe that would not have been the case if Stanford had operated with the same aggressiveness in the first half as it did in the fourth quarter.

2) SOMEBODY, PLEASE GET A SACK! 

Stanford has just one sack in two games, putting it at 124th in sacks per game out of 126 FBS teams that have played in 2020. The Cardinal are allowing 9.6 yards per pass attempt, good for 120th in the FBS. Stanford’s pass defense has been objectively horrible through two games, and though the secondary deserves plenty of blame, the non-existent pass-rush is making Stanford a dream opponent for opposing QBs. 

Wazzu QB Jayden de Laura just threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon. The latest phenom out of the same Honolulu high school that produced Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa, de Laura plays with a gunslinging, fearless attitude rarely seen in a true freshman. And he is mobile. Washington State QBs have thrown for an average of 479 yards in the last two games with Stanford. Jayden De Laura might even up that average if the Cardinal cannot find a pass rush.

Stanford has potential pass-rushing talent. Junior defensive end Thomas Booker is the most likely candidate, alongside a promising linebacker group currently hindered by injuries. But that pass-rushing potential needs to turn into results immediately — else Stanford will watch its season crumble under repeated aerial assaults.

3) Pounce on the Cougars 

Shaw prefers to receive the opening kickoff so that his team can set the tone by scoring first. In both games this season, Stanford has moved the ball down the field but failed to score touchdowns (see Key No. 1). That needs to change versus Washington State. More generally, Stanford must start faster to allow for a balanced offensive attack throughout the game.

(Photo: ERIN CHANG/Stanford Athletics)

The Cardinal offense had 56 pass attempts and 21 rush attempts against Colorado. Mills was the leading rusher for Stanford with 36 yards. That ratio and rushing performance would have been blasphemous during the Intellectual Brutality era of the early 2010s. Even though Stanford’s strength this season is the passing offense, the Cardinal cannot afford to be so unbalanced because opposing defenses will key on Mills and his receivers. Obviously, Stanford had to go full Air Raid to play catch-up after falling behind by three possessions in the fourth quarter. But with a fast start, Stanford can feed its powerful sophomore running back duo of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat while still staying aggressive in the passing game. 

Washington State has amassed double-digit leads in both its opening win over Oregon State and the tight Oregon loss. Nick Rolovich’s new squad is not used to playing from behind. If Stanford can pounce from the opening kickoff, the Cougars might just crumble. But even if it takes seven OTs, 70 points and 700 yards, Stanford cannot let it become seven straight losses. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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