Stanford (5-2, 3-1 in the Pac-12) kept its Rose Bowl hopes alive by smothering Cal's offense in a 21-3 victory on Oct. 13, and the Cardinal simply needs to avoid a major letdown to beat Washington State at Stanford on Oct. 27 and stay in the Pac-12 title race.
This should be the easiest conference game of the season for the Cardinal. Not only has Washington State lost four in a row to drop to 0-4 in the Pac-12, but the Cardinal will be at home, where its offense has been much better than it's been on the road.
Specifically, quarterback Josh Nunes has been better at home. Even though he had his best road game of the season against Cal, he barely completed more than 50 percent of his passes (16-for-31), and he hasn't demonstrated a control of the situation on the road like he has at home.
The Cougars rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in all defensive categories, so Nunes and the rest of the Cardinal offense should be able to do virtually anything they want.
Stanford will simply try to pound the Cougars into submission early with its power running game, hoping to take the life out of the Cougars, who could give up the fight if they get behind.
Washington State's offense has not been particularly effective under first-year coach Mike Leach, and Stanford's defense should be able handle anything the Cougars offer.
WSU does present some issues of concern, though. The Cougars have virtually no running game, but teams typically don't try to run much against Stanford's strong run defense anyhow. Plus, the Cardinal's defense has had some problems with teams that spread the field, which is what the Cougars do.
WSU's Marquess Wilson is the kind of big-play wide receiver who can give the Cardinal secondary problems. And the Cougars could use two quarterbacks -- either Connor Halliday or Jeff Tuel -- presenting a preparation problem for the Cardinal defense. Tuel is expected to start against the Cardinal, and he has been the more productive of the two.
So by relying on a spread offensive scheme that focuses on passing, the Cougars have the style that could challenge the Cardinal defense. The Cougars just don't seem to have the personnel or confidence to cause Stanford problems.
One final issue is that Stanford has played a lot of close, low-scoring games, relying on its defense to keep it in games while its offense does just enough to get a victory. That does not leave much room for error, so a few mistakes could be costly, even against Washington State. In only one of its seven games has the Stanford offense shown the capability to outscore an opponent in a high-scoring game.
Nunes' numbers vary greatly based on game location
--Stanford is No. 17 in this week's BCS standings, which is higher than its No. 19 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls and No. 18 ranking in the Harris poll. That's because the BCS computers rank Stanford No. 11. The Cardinal is in the AP top 25 for the 40th straight week. The streak is tied for the fifth longest in the nation, dating back to Sept. 5, 2010.
--Washington State coach Mike Leach added some interesting activities to his bye-week practices. The team had competitions in dodgeball, tug of war, egg toss and soccer penalty kicks.
--Stanford has intercepted nine passes this season. It had seven interceptions all of last season.
--Stanford has averaged 36.3 points in its four home games and 15.7 points in its three road games. At home, QB Josh Nunes has completed 55.7 percent of his passes for 244.5 yards per game, eight touchdowns and three interceptions to go with 52 rushing yards. On the road, Nunes has completed 49.5 percent of his passes for 170 yards per game with one touchdown and four interceptions, while rushing for eight yards.
---QB Kevin Hogan figures to get playing time in certain circumstances. The 6-4, 224-pound Hogan has been used in something similar to a wildcat formation, although Stanford uses the "wildcat" term only when a tailback gets a direct snap. Hogan is used primarily as a runner on goal-line situations, but he threw a touchdown pass against Cal, and his playing time may increase as the season goes on.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford leads 36-25-1 (last meeting, 2011, 44-14 Stanford).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Cardinal offense has been fairly productive at home, producing 54 points and 617 yards in its most recent home game. That was against a weak Arizona defense, although the defense Stanford will face against Washington State is not much better. The Cardinal typically relies on its power running, hoping Josh Nunes can produce enough of a passing threat against defenses that are always stacked to stop the run against Stanford. Stepfan Taylor averages 120.9 rushing yards per game and is coming off a career-high 189-yard game against Cal. Nonetheless, the Cardinal's ground game has not been as productive as it was last season, probably because it does not have the passing threat to go with it. The Cardinal's most dangerous offensive weapons are its tight ends -- Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. The Cardinal's wide receivers provide only a limited threat.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense has been outstanding this season except for the Oct. 13 game against Arizona, which used its spread option offense and athleticism to create space and slice apart the Cardinal. The Cardinal has been outstanding against the run, ranking fourth in the country in that category. Cal was limited to three yards rushing on Oct. 20. Stanford's front seven is among the best in the country, and its depth and talent at the four linebacker spots is unmatched. Stanford's weakness is at cornerback, and the Cardinal continues to start different players at that position.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We could see more of it. We have a Kevin Hogan package, so that's not really playing two quarterbacks." -- Stanford coach David Shaw, on the use of Kevin Hogan at quarterback, while denying that he has a two-quarterback system.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Washington State at Stanford, Oct. 27 -- Stanford is 5-2 (3-1 in the Pac-12) after its 21-3 victory over Cal. Washington State is 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the conference. The Cougars have lost four in a row and have not played since their 31-17 loss to Cal on Oct. 13. Stanford has won four in row against the Cougars,
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must avoid turnovers and major mistakes. A blown coverage that leads to an early Washington State touchdown could be costly, not only because it would give Washington State some confidence, but the Cardinal is not a good come-from-behind team. If Stanford can control the game with its running game, and get ahead, it should be able to be able to dictate the pace. The Cardinal needs to apply some pressure to WSU QB Jeff Tuel because he is capable of hitting his passes and moving the ball if he has time. The main thing is for Stanford to demonstrate its physical dominance at the outset.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy -- Thomas and Murphy have combined for 18 tackles for losses, including eight sacks, and eight quarterback hurries. Each has an interception. They are the chief weapons in Stanford's pass rush, and both are capable of coming up with game-changing plays.
TEs Levin Toilolo/Zach Ertz -- They have combined for 46 receptions, 793 receiving yards and six of the team's 10 receiving touchdowns. They have been the Cardinal's most reliable receivers, especially on third down. They are, without question, the top tight end tandem in the country.
TB Stepfan Taylor -- Taylor has averaged 120.9 rushing yards a game, which is third in the Pac-12 and 13th in the country. He is coming off a career-high 189 yards rushing against Cal and figures to have a big game against Washington State. He also is second on the team in receptions with 21.
QB Josh Nunes -- He is the key to Stanford's success. When he played well against USC and Arizona, the Cardinal had success. When he struggled against Washington and Notre Dame, the Cardinal lost. He has completed 53 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, numbers that need to improve.
--WR Ty Montgomery has missed the past two games with a knee injury, but he may play against Washington State.
--OLB Trent Murphy was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker.
--OLB Chase Thomas was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after collecting three tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the 21-3 victory over Cal on Oct. 20.