View From the Booth: A must-win versus the crafty cougars

Nov. 3, 2022, 2:49 p.m.

Now entering the final third of the season, Stanford football (3-5, 1-5 Pac-12) returns home to host Washington State (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12). Though few eyeballs will be on Stanford Stadium, Saturday afternoon’s contest is absolutely a must-win game if Stanford is to salvage something of its season as we move into November.

Though last week’s loss to then-No. 12 UCLA (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) at the Rose Bowl came as no surprise, the manner of the 38-13 defeat punctuated the deficiencies of the 2022 Cardinal team and of the uncertain state of the program. Yet again against good competition, the Cardinal were blown aside. Stanford’s offense managed a nice opening drive, but after the Cardinal could not cash from 1st-and-goal from the UCLA five-yard line and head coach David Shaw elected to send out junior kicker Joshua Karty for a chip shot field goal — a move that offered little upside in a potential high-scoring game — it felt like Stanford had missed a key opportunity to make it a game. 

Sure enough, UCLA’s offense wasted no time. Running back Zach Charbonnet — the nation’s leading rusher in yards per carry — took his first three carries for three first downs, setting the tone for a game in which UCLA moved at will. Two quick scoring drives for the Bruins, separated by a Tanner McKee interception, ensued, making it a 14-3 game before 10 minutes of football had been played. If it were boxing, the referee might’ve called it there. The fight certainly would have been stopped by halftime, and even though Stanford’s late touchdown ended a 10+ quarter streak of failing to find paydirt, there were few positives to take forward — how can there be, when you are outgained three-to-one in the first half and surrender over 350 yards on the ground? 

Last Saturday was a stark reminder of how far Stanford football has slid over the last few seasons, but this Saturday remains a winnable game. On paper, this game is a true 50-50 toss-up. That said, Washington State pops up every year, regardless of coach or record, to give Shaw’s Stanford nightmares: The Cougs have won the last five in the series, and you have to go back to Stanford’s Rose Bowl season in 2015 to see a Cardinal win — and even then, only after Washington State missed a game-winning field goal as time expired. 

This year’s vintage of Washington State intrigues, but after early season buzz — the Cougars knocked off a ranked Wisconsin on the road and nearly upset Oregon on the Palouse — head coach Jake Dickert, in his first full year at the helm, has seen his team slump of late. Washington State limps in losers of their last three, and missed a golden opportunity to knock off a top-15 Utah team playing without its starting quarterback, star running back and several other key offensive weapons in Pullman, Wash. last Thursday. Nevertheless, few Power 5 programs are as adept at getting a lot out of very little in terms of raw talent as Washington State, and the Cougars present a unique challenge in their unwavering commitment to throwing the football.

Taking the reins of the characteristic Cougar air raid is sophomore quarterback Cameron Ward, and Washington State really lives and dies by their gunslinger. Playing his first year in the FBS after transferring from FCS Incarnate Word, where he threw for 47 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last year, Ward poses a unique threat in how he plays the position. Ward excels in his mobility and carries a dual-threat. That said, unlike most quarterbacks with such a profile, Cameron Ward does not immediately look to take off when flushed from the pocket. Rather, Ward is pass-first until he has no option but to tuck and run: he will elude defenders, escape the pocket but keep his eyes downfield, looking to leverage his escapability to pressure defensive backs into holding coverages longer than usual.

Part of the challenge in predicting how Stanford will fare against Washington State is that Ward represents such a joker: he can throw 45+ times any given day (Washington State’s deemphasized run game ranks near the bottom of FBS) but also commits an above-average rate of turnovers, sacks and other negative plays. Of course, Stanford’s ability to deal with Cameron Ward is a moot point without offensive improvement. The Cardinal offense simply looks stale. Time and time again against UCLA, two ineffective plays would create a third-and-long situation, and Stanford’s only option would be to ask junior quarterback Tanner McKee to throw up a low-probability, contested ball to a perimeter target while under duress. 

Much then to figure out in the lead-up to Saturday, but for whatever reason, Stanford’s coaching staff has not figured out Washington State. That needs to change this weekend, given the context of Stanford’s season. If not, well, the aberrantly cool seats Stanford coaches sit on should get hot. The program won’t say so, but this is a must-win, and Stanford should consider these keys to get that pesky crimson and gray monkey off its back. 

  1. Pressure, pressure, pressure

Despite Ward’s unique skill set, other Pac-12 defenses have demonstrated that his threat evaporates under pressure. The Washington State quarterback’s instinct is to hold onto the ball and move around to look downfield. That’s fine, but in doing so the Washington State quarterback is highly susceptible to pressure: he often holds onto the ball too long, allowing pursuing defenders to work into the play and hit him in the backfield. The 30 sacks given up by Washington State are the most in Power 5 football, and many ensue from Ward attempting to create something in the passing game when he’d do better taking off. In addition to sacks, Ward is fumble prone — he coughed the ball up twice against the Utes last Thursday — and averages an interception a game, so should Stanford apply pressure, opportunities for takeaways are in play.

Stanford’s defensive success against Washington State hinges on its pass rush, which has woken up over the past few weeks. True freshman edge rusher David Bailey improves every snap: despite his youth, the SoCal native has flashed big time potential and was Stanford’s best player on either side of the ball against UCLA, leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss and recording both a sack and forced fumble. Senior Stephen Herron has come to life as well, registering a couple crucial sacks down the stretch at Notre Dame and earning Pro Football Focus team of the week honors against Arizona State. Edge rusher is one of the few spots on the roster where Stanford remains deep, and if the position group produces more of the same on Saturday, the Cardinal can contain the Cougs. 

  1. Reanimate the passing attack

Where to start, here? Stanford came into the season with a receiving corps respected across the conference and a quarterback with the arm to put up points against anybody.

Recent weeks have seen this notion fail to play out, and defenses are recognizing the limitations of Stanford’s personnel. Tanner McKee has an NFL arm, but in each passing game, his limited mobility and lack of pocket presence becomes more apparent. Worryingly, his struggles in navigating the pocket and discomfort against pressure have been on film for over a year, but we haven’t seen much improvement — the junior has a first round arm, but McKee’s draft stock is plummeting as his immobility is a killer in today’s NFL. 

On the receiving side, Stanford has not found a downfield threat. Stanford has a number of truly elite guys at coming down with a contested catch, but the roster lacks somebody to take the top off the defense. As such, opponent DBs get aggressive underneath, making completing even the quick passes a tough proposition. 

Look, I don’t have easy fixes here. Factor in an inconsistent, oft-injured offensive line and a decimated running game, and the difficulty facing the passing game increases further. Ultimately, though, responsibility falls on the coaching staff, which brings us to… 

  1. Freshen up play calling

Even in the best of times, Stanford’s offensive play selection was never dynamic. Stanford leveraged physical mismatches to win by repeatedly wearing down opposition in the trenches. Over the past few years, however, this personnel advantage eroded, and the Cardinal offense has been painfully exposed.

Part of the problem is the predictability of key concepts. Consider McKee’s last two interceptions, against ASU and UCLA. In the first, Sun Devil safety Jordan Clark recognized Stanford’s short hitch to the sticks — a play Stanford run all too often on third down — and jumped the route, while in the second, UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau stayed unmoved on an RPO, understanding the lack of threat in the run game and the probability of an in-breaking route in his portion of the field. Stanford’s offense at the moment is ineffective and predictable, and despite a number of talented contributors on that side of the ball, the Cardinal attack remains painfully less than the sum of its parts.

Bigger picture, though, Stanford’s offense has not evolved with college football. Aside from simply getting a bit stale, David Shaw — who remains heavily involved in play calls, even as the head coach — and his offense relies on a personnel advantage to succeed. Shaw said as much himself after Oregon, describing the Cardinal as an “execution team,” not a “scheme team.” That’s great, if you have the players to dominantly impose yourself. This year, Stanford doesn’t, and the staff have failed to both maximize their players’ talent and minimize their shortcomings. 

In contrast, Washington State is, and for years has been, the ultimate scheme team: Shaw’s Cardinal may be all about execution, but scheme has won the day each of the last five contests. 

Pablo’s Picks of the Week: 

  • Washington State 24, Stanford 20
  • Game I’ll be watching: (6) Alabama at (15) LSU
  • Game I’d watch, if not for Stanford: (2) Tennessee at (1) Georgia 

Pablo will be in the booth Saturday to call the game on KZSU.

Pablo is a columnist for the sports section. You can also find him in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM. You can contact Pablo at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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