Halfway into the season, Stanford head coach David Shaw’s game evaluations are beginning to take on a familiar theme.
“I don’t believe we were outmatched,” Shaw said on Tuesday about Stanford’s Friday loss to No. 22 Arizona State. “I believe we were outplayed.”
To hear Shaw tell it, the Cardinal have the talent to compete and are capable of much more, but mistakes and periods of poor execution have held them back. Stanford just hasn’t played its best football yet.
If that’s the case, now is the time to find answers. Stanford (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) now stands at a crossroads, as the team travels to play Washington State (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) on Saturday. The Cardinal are currently tied for second place in the Pac-12 North division, sitting behind Oregon. With the hardest part of their schedule behind them, the Cardinal still have an outside chance at a Pac-12 Championship berth. Keeping that chance alive starts in Pullman.
On paper, the Cougars are a much easier matchup for the Cardinal than the gauntlet of ranked teams Stanford battled through in September, but Washington State has won four straight games against the Cardinal dating back to 2016. Heading into Pullman is never an easy assignment.
“First thing that comes to my mind is the weather,” said fifth-year outside linebacker Gabe Reid, who is making his third trip to the Palouse with Stanford. “It’s going to be cold, and luckily we’re not playing a later game … It’s going to be a rowdy environment; Pullman’s a big college town.”
The Cougars are a different team than the one that beat the Cardinal in their last meeting in 2019. New head coach Nick Rolovich, who moved away from the high-scoring Air Raid offense that buried Stanford in the last few years, has yet to face Stanford in his career since last year’s matchup was canceled due to COVID-19 cases within the Cougar team. But Shaw isn’t taking the matchup for granted.
“Washington State in particular, [the games] are all crazy,” Shaw said. “We’ve played them on Halloween twice in the middle of the night, played them in rain and sleet, played them down here in crazy games that came down to the fourth quarter.”
If Washington State continues to create havoc on Saturday, it’ll be with quarterback Jayden de Laura, who passed for 399 yards in last week’s game against Oregon State. Star running back Max Borghi has been featured less than expected but is still an all-conference talent who gashed the Cardinal as a runner and a receiver when the two teams last played. On the other side of the ball, the Cougar defense struggled against USC but smothered Cal and held up well against Oregon State and Utah.
“They’re not big on the defensive line, but they are quick and explosive in their playmakers,” Shaw said. “Offensively, it’s an exciting form of offense that, if you slip up, they’re gonna take advantage of it.”
Stanford will need to keep pace with an increasingly depleted offense. Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee needs a bounceback performance after throwing his first three career interceptions in Tempe last week, but with sophomore wide receiver John Humphreys now out, the Corona-native will only have one of his original starting receivers to throw to against the Cougars. Fifth-year tight end/defensive end Tucker Fisk and senior fullback Jay Symmonds are also out — a big loss for the Cardinal run game.
Shaw said that some players who’ve missed time over the last few weeks are probable to return, including sophomore wide receiver Bryce Farrell, sophomore kicker Joshua Karty, junior cornerback Zahran Manley and fifth-year safety Noah Williams. Still, the Cardinal will be forced to mine the depths of their roster to bolster the team; freshman wide receiver Jayson Raines and defensive end Aaron Armitage are listed on the depth chart for the first time this season and could see extended playing time.
Significant absences have hurt the Cardinal before this season — the unavailability of junior running back Austin Jones loomed large over the loss to UCLA — but Stanford should still have the talent to contend with a Washington State team that can’t yet compete with the Cardinal’s resume of wins.
More than that, though, the pressure is on for Stanford to finally settle as a team.
“The challenge for us, sitting here at 3-3 after six games,” Shaw said, “is to really get into that October groove and start playing our best football.”
Stanford kicks off against Washington State at 4:30 p.m. PT on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPNU.