October 22, 2010

Match-up analysis: Stanford vs. Washington State

The Stanford Cardinal host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday for Stanford's 2010 Homecoming Game. This is a must win for the Cardinal both set the tone for the second half of the 2010 season and keep BCS Bowl Game hopes alive. Stanford has displayed consistency and competitiveness in all phases of the game with their ascension up the ranks of the Pac-10 under Coach Harbaugh. More specifically, Stanford has shaken its long-time stigma of being inconsistent week -to-week and particularly playing down to lower level competition. Harbaugh-led Stanford teams have been extremely decisive in beating on significantly lower ranked teams. This week will again be a test of maintaining that level of consistency. In our comprehensive pregame breakdown, CardinalReport takes a detailed look at the key units of Saturday's game….offense, defense and special teams (well, maybe not special teams).


The Stanford secondary has struggled a bit with difficult matchups over the past two games versus Oregon and USC. Be concerned, but don't worry too much. Oregon is a tough match schematically. They are able to stretch the field vertically and horizontally in a slightly unorthodox yet effective fashion with their passing attack. USC is more traditional with their scheme, but still uber-talented at their skill positions, particularly with their wideouts. Yes, Matt Barkley and the USC passing attack pretty much had their way with Stanford. But check out the Cal-USC game if you think it was simply a lack ability on Stanford's defensive end. Rather it was that USC is still USC….which means they are pretty special.

All that being said, and the stats from those two games being what they were, Stanford's secondary is showing some flashes of improvement over last year's average at best performances in 2009. CB Johnson Bademosi[/db[ is getting better. S [db]Delano Howell is really progressing and becoming just a better all-around player with much more awareness that previously displayed. Howell has always been a big hitter since Day One. Now he is becoming a more consistent tackler to add to his highlight film hits. S Michael Thomas has been playing with some nagging injuries the past two weeks after his injury at Notre Dame. One has to think that the bye week could not have come at a better time for him. Look for CB Richard Sherman to have a big game this week versus the Cougars with their longer, yet slightly less dynamic wide receivers. It is just the matchup that Sherman needs to rebound from a pretty long day against USC and Robert Woods.. It was probably a bit presumptuous and skewed to have our secondary's defensive passing stats rank them in the top 10 nationally after the first couple of games. But make no mistake about the current situation, this Cardinal secondary is playing well and is much improved over last year.

Washington State appears to have finally found their guy at the QB position. Sophomore Jeff Tuel, per the Washington State SID, is drawing comparisons to former Cougar greats Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf, both also started as sophomores at Wazzu. Personally I think it is a little too early to be categorizing Tuel with the likes of Bledsoe and Leaf just quite yet. Need to get a win against a FBS school this year first partner. But, Tuel not afraid to sling the rock, appears to manage the game fairly well in spite of not having much help from his supporting cast, and basically does appear to the player for Paul Wulff to build Washington State's football resurgence around. Now just win. Statistically, Tuel has completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 1,735 yards with 10 TDs and 7 INTs.

True freshman WR Marquess Wilson has really emerged for the Cougars and just had his 4th game for the season of more than 100 receiving yards last week against Arizona with 6 catches for 131 yards and a TD. Wilson and Junior WR Jared Karsetter are the two primary targets of Tuel combining for 70 receptions for 1,024 yards and 7 TDs (not bad when you factor in that this team has only scored 17 TDs on the season). Wilson leads the Cougars in receiving yards (92.3 ypg) and is tied for the lead in receptions (5.0 rpg), leading all freshmen nationally in both categories. He is also a deep threat with 7 receptions of 40-plus yards, more than any Cougar had in all of their 2009 season. Similar to UCLA's WR corps, Washington State's top guys are both long (Wilson at 6'3" and Kersetter at 6'4") and have solid hands. They are not speed demons though. Both Sherman and Bademosi will match well. Strength on strength. Should be an interesting battle.



Shayne Skov has really asserted himself from his first game back in Week 3 against Wake Forest. He is Stanford's best defensive player, even as a true sophomore. He not only makes stats, more importantly he makes plays. Expect Washington State to try to spread out Stanford's defense with their 3 to 4 WR attack and Stanford will most likely counter with its 4-2-5 defense. Expect big games from Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser, who are very good pass rushers. Both have particularly feasted on teams with sub-par offensive lines. In particular, Keiser has always had big games in his career against the Cougs, with 3.5 Tackles for a Loss in 2009 and 2 Sacks in 2008. And this year's matchup looks to be no different. Owen will be Owen. Steady, dependable, and will sneak you with a couple of highlight plays from time to time.

RB James Montgomery is a 5th Year senior. He is more than capable and pretty complete as a RB, in spite of what his career college statistics might otherwise indicate. Mongtomery transferred to Washington State after two years at Cal and he was strongly regarded and highly rated coming out of HS in the Sacramento area. The key for Washington State is being able to get Montgomery to the second level, which they have not been able to consistently do to date. For the 2010 season, Montgomery has gained 298 yards on 82 carries and 4 rushing TDs. Nothing too spectacular, particularly when you factor in that he gained 116 of those yards against Montana State, but he is not a bad running back. QB Jeff Tuel is also a capable runner. He has gained 194 yards on the ground, but only nets out with 40 yards once you factor in his 154 yards in sacks and tackles for a loss.



Stanford's defensive front reasserted itself against the Trojan rushing attack. The DL was able to limit USC to just 108 yards on 28 carries. Conversely, USC has been the best in pass-protection (aside from the Stanford OL) in the Pac-10 Conference this season. And Stanford did not apply enough pressure in the USC game to feel great about itself, but that could change this week against the Cougars. Washington State's offensive line has given up 29 sacks on the season to date. The traditional Stanford DL in their base 3-4 (Sione Fua, Brian Bulcke, and Mathew Masifilo) may not get the credited sacks statistically, but look for them to get some serious push and pressure on Washington State throughout the game.

The WSU offensive line has improved over the past couple of years, but it is still not great guns quite yet. With their spread offense, WSU's coaches asks their offensive line to handle a lot at times in their pass protection. Washington State does not have the fastest receivers around either, their routes occasionally take time; time they don't have. And when the Cougs get behind in some of their games (as they have in every game this year, even their Montana State win), you add in the ability for defensive lines to pin their ears back and go, not a real recipe for offensive success. Worse news for the Cougars is the season-ending injury to left tackle David Gonzales from last week's Arizona game. His replacement is a true freshman (never a good thing for any team to have to play true freshman up front) and a converted, former HS tight end John Fullington. The good news for the Cougars is that OT Micah Hannam appears to be back from his concussion that forced him to miss last week's Arizona game. Hannam has started the most games on the team regardless of position with 43 starts in his career.



Andrew Luck continues to impress week in and week out, his consistency is unmatched. Last week versus USC, he was 20 of 24 for 285 yards passing and 3 TDs with 0 INTs. Throw in 6 carries for 40 yards and a game winning final drive with a little over a minute to go. Just another day at the office for what appears to be the beginning of a nice, underpublicized, grassroots Heisman Trophy campaign for our certain NFL 1st Round Pick, QB Wonderboy. After getting two weeks to prepare and watch game tape on the Cougars, in particular seeing what Matt Barkley and USC did to Washington State in Pullman, Luck and the passing attack for Stanford have to be excited about this week's opportunity to slice and dice. Ryan Whalen is back up after dislocating his elbow in the Wake Forest game. Doug Baldwin is coming off his finest game versus the Trojans with 8 catches for 98 yards and 2 TDs. Chris Owusu has been injury plagued through the 2010 season, but when he has been in the game, he continues to add consistency to his overall high-end play-making ability. Stanford could be nearing full strength at the wide receivers position group....finally.

The Washington State secondary is a bit of a hot mess right now. Their pass defense is ranked 108th in the country, allowing over 262 yards a game. Sadly, that is one of the bright spots on their defense as the Cougars rank 113th in Pass Efficiency Defense (156.31), 120th in Total Defense (517.5 yards per game), and 118th in Scoring Defense (42.38 points per game). Bottomline, Washington State is reeling in their secondary. They are not really talented to begin with and they don't play with great discipline. They play off and gamble with big hits, which often turn into shoddy tackling in the second level, and hope for interceptions, at which they have been unsuccessful, garnering only 6 INTs through 7 games. Their safeties are their bright spot, relatively. Senior S Chima Nwachukwu has the most experience of anyone on the Cougar defense, totaling 32 career starts. Nwachukwu is an average player and true freshman S Deone Bucannon appears to be making some noise, at least statistically, for the Cougars. Last week against Arizona, Bucannon had a game-high 16 total tackles and 14 solo tackles, along with a tackle-for-loss and a pass breakup. Bucannon's 16 tackles were the most by a Cougar since 2007 and the most in a Pac-10 Conference game this season. The 14 solo tackles are tied for the fifth-most in school history and the most by a Cougar freshman EVER.



Sophomore RB Stepfan Taylor has taken advantage of the opportunity given to him by stepping up big and answering the challenge of carrying the load for Stanford in its time of need.. Playing his best in the biggest games of the season at Notre Dame (108), at Oregon (113), and versus USC (104), Taylor has a chance to put himself into some pretty elite company this week versus the Cougars. If Taylor reaches the century mark against Washington State on Saturday, he will become just the 4th Stanford back in school history to rush for 100-yards or more in four straight games. Toby Gerhart (2008 and 2009), Darrin Nelson (1980) and Tommy Vardell (twice in 1991) are the only other Stanford rushers to accomplish this feat. Also bad news for the Cougars is the possibility that the Cardinal depth chart appears to reloading as rumors are swirling around the Stanford practice fields that both Stanford RBs Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart may be finally returning this week. Currently, Stanford ranks 4th in the Pac-10 and 23rd nationally with 210.5 rushing yards per game and is averaging slightly more than last year's pace with a Toby Gerhart-led 2009 rushing attack that averaged 209.7 yards per game.

The Cougar Defense appears to be improving of late, again relatively. Oregon did not totally dismantle them, which was very surprising to me. And last week against Arizona, the WSU defense only allowed 24 points and 352 yards of total offense, both record lows for Wazzuu against a Pac-10 opponent since WSU allowed 13 points and 323 yards against Washington in 2008. That is the best statistically Wazzu has done in the past 18 games. Specifically, the Cougar Linebackers are okay but they are young and doing the best they can to find the right combination that works for them. Particularly at the mike LB spot, where 4 different linebackers (Mike Ledgewood, Hallston Higgins, C.J.Mizell, and Sekope Kaufusi) have started games this year for the Cougars. "True Freshman" CJ Mizell is the best of the bunch. Mizell was offered by Florida, FSU, and Georgia out of HS in 2009. He signed with Florida State, but sat out a year to "focus" on his academic eligibility and now in 2010, he finds himself in the Palouse at Washington State. Against Oregon, Mizell had 12 tackles, nine solo, and forced a fumble yet he does not start the following week against Arizona for violationg team rules, so who knows what is going on up there. Sam LB Myron Beck has had 17 starts in his WSU career and although pretty light for a LB, he plays well within the Cougars' scheme.

Washington State's best LB right now is their weakside LB, Alex Hoffman-Ellis. He has 16 career starts and for the season has accrued 48 total tackles (33 solo), 4 TFLs, 2 Sacks, 2 interceptions, and 3 pass break-ups. This group is coming along, they have taken their lumps to get here, but they are not incapable of playing well (unlike the 2008 Washington State LB corps that was pretty much awful), and as evidenced by the past two defensive efforts for the Cougars.



Stanford's offensive line took a hit to their nationally recognized sacks allowed stat by giving up one sack last week in the USC game, raising their grand total to 3 sacks allowed for the season. They are on pace to break last year's impressively low total of 7 allowed, well done boys. To the Trojans credit, they really have some impressive defensive linemen on their roster. Maybe they are not 3-deep on the depth chart strong anymore, but their #1's are still damn impressive and they made some plays against the Cardinal last week.

That being said, Stanford's OL did a great jump establishing the run, garnering 193 yards on 36 carries (5.4 yard average) and 2 rushing TDs….as well as limiting the influence of USC's pass rush. The consistency which Stanford's OL has produced and displayed throughout the season, regardless of opponent, has been impressive to me. It is really hard to single one guy out., the group is really playing well as a unit. Probably should get some type of lifetime achievement or at least a group award of some kind. Actually, I am surprised that somebody somewhere does not give away a post-season position group award, particularly for the most dominant offensive line, with the 8 million different awards that are out there. A possible opportunity for the Council of Chiefs or random civic group?

The WSU defensive line is still a work in progress. However, compared to last year, and relative to where they have been this year, it can only go upward. Travis Long is the best of the bunch, who is a one-time former Stanford recruit that did not end up getting an offer from the Cardinal, Long really has shown that he belongs in the Pac-10. He started all 12 games in 2009 as true freshmen garnering 6.5 TFLs and 2 sacks. By the way, 2 sacks was a team hjigh last year for the Cougs.

This year, Long has already doubled that production with 4 sacks and 8 TFLs, he is legit and more than capable as a pass rusher. The defensive tackle positions are manned by Brandon Rankin and Bernard Wolfgramm, who are night and day in comparison to the USC DT's. Fifth-year Senior Kevin Kooyman posts up opposite of Long and last week against Arizona was again a glimmer of hope for the DL. The Cougar defense registered six sacks, the most since 2008 when the Cougs had 7 sacks to end their season at Hawaii. Similarly, as sacks also double count for tackles-for-loss, the WSU defense also recorded 12 tackles-for-loss in the Arizona game, the most since the 2007 Oregon State game. The WSU defense in general and specifically the DL is not going to win any awards getting off the bus or purely on their game film. But they are a crafty and capable bunch. Best to not let them getting going early.



The Cougars are finally getting back to their wily ways. After a significant 2+ years hiatus from even being remotely competitive, and beginning right at the start of the Paul Wulff era, and with their backs against the wall with questions of Wulff and coaching staff, as well the decision to fire Bill Doba (compare Doba's 30-29 record at Washington State versus Wulff's 4-28 record at Wazzu), the Cougars have recently displayed some life in the past two weeks against Oregon and Arizona.

No coach likes to take moral victories and Wulff's post-game press conferences on YouTube are especially painful to watch because you can tell that this guy wants to win so badly for his alma mater and realizes how bad he sounds in his details of what happened. (And just how many times can you refer to "The Process"?) But if you are a believer in what is taking place at Washington State, or even if you aren't, the reality is the Cougars are improving.

Personally, I did not think it was possible. Particularly after seeing the 2008 Washington State team getting beat up 58-0 at Stanford two years ago, Washington State looked more like a high school team in many ways…..an average Northern California high school team, not some beastly south Florida high school powerhouse. (Take that Pony and your De La Salle lovers!) But seriously, those days are over.

Washington State is not "back" and they are not going to run the table this year and finish in some random bowl game. But they are improving. And more so, they are improving in the season even as their competition gets tougher each week.

Stanford is the fourth ranked team the Cougars have faced in 2010 (USC, Oregon and Arizona). The Cougars are in the toughest three-game stretch they have faced in more than 35 years. In consecutive weeks, Washington State will have faced a then #3-ranked Oregon, #17-ranked Arizona and now #12-ranked Stanford team. For the college football history buffs, the last time the Cougars faced three Top 20 opponents dates back to 1974, when they played #16 Illinois, #1 Ohio State and #7 USC. Losing all three matchups back then when facemasks were optional, and hopefully history repeats itself.

Nonetheless, this game represents a complete role reversal for the two programs. Stanford is on the way up and Washington State is still trying to find itself and figure out a way not to be in the basement of the Pac-10. Stanford is favored, the more physical, intimidating team, and still clinging to Rose Bowl hopes. The question for this game is whether Stanford will continue to dominant significantly lesser teams as they have consistently done under Harbaugh.

Luck should have his way against the Washington State defense. The passing game and the running game should be firing right out of the box, despite the potential rust from Stanford's bye week/improvement week. Stanford's OL should be able to set the tone early and often. The Stanford defense needs to get back to their dominant performances from earlier in the 2010 season. There are going to be numerous opportunities to make some big plays for the Vic Fangio-led group, particularly sacks and interceptions. Tuel is not afraid to deal the ball downfield and take shots. This could be the game we see Stanford's defense really become nasty and ruthless. Maybe even a 10 sack/ 5 turnover type performance if the defense can get after Tuel and the WSU OL early.

The Cardinal dominates this one early and often. The game is never close.


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