STANFORD, Calif. – Washington State’s football coaches are running out of superlatives.
Before the Cougars last suited up on Oct. 13, linebackers coach Jeff Choate said WSU would be facing the best group of running backs in the Pac-12 against California.
True: The Bears rushed for 318 yards on 50 carries in a 31-17 win.
And when the Cougars face No. 17 Stanford today at 3:15 p.m., they’ll go against Stepfan Taylor, whom safety Deone Bucannon labeled the best running back in the conference, and against a defensive front that coach Mike Leach termed the most physical he’s seen on film.
“Not only is their first level big,” Leach said. “Their second level’s pretty big, too.”
The Cardinal (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) also happens to be pretty good at something the Cougars haven’t been so good at preventing this season – sacking the quarterback.
Sure, the Cardinal is fourth in the country in rushing defense, allowed only three rushing yards to Cal last week and is and notorious for its physical play at the line of scrimmage. But WSU likely isn’t going to run the ball a heck of a lot.
“That’s inconsequential to us,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Because first and foremost we’re going to make sure we’re handling our run responsibilities on our way to attacking the quarterback.”
More glaring, then, for the Cougars might be that Stanford has 22 sacks this season, tied for eighth-most in the country. WSU has allowed 24 sacks this season, tied for 113th in the country.
“They blitz a fair amount,” said WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel, who might become acquainted with standout Stanford linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. “But I think the most challenging thing is going to be stopping their pass rush and me getting the ball out quick and efficiently and finding the right receivers really, because with these guys, I won’t be able to hold the ball as long, I think. I just need to be efficient with my reads and be able to get the ball out as quick and efficiently as possible.”
Tuel did that well enough against California to earn the starting job back this week. WSU’s offensive effort against the Bears was frustrating because the Cougars ultimately produced only 17 points despite multiple drives into Cal territory.
Tuel completed 29 of 53 passes for 320 yards, providing some consistency after taking over for sophomore Connor Halliday in the first quarter.
“I want to lead this team to some victories and like I said last week, a bowl game still isn’t out of reach, believe it or not,” Tuel said. “People from the outside looking in can say it is, but it’s not with us. With the position I’m in, it’s my job to take us there and I’m going to keep believing until it’s out of reach.”
Oddsmakers see it becoming even further out of reach this week. Stanford enters the game as a 25-point favorite in some casinos. WSU needs to win four of its last five games to achieve a 6-6 record and qualify for a bowl bid, but the Cougars will likely be underdogs in each remaining game.
If ever there’s a good time for WSU to be playing at Stanford, it’s this week, with the Cardinal coming off emotional rivalry games against Notre Dame and California.
But Shaw doesn’t think that’ll be an issue.
“We’ve talked a bunch to our team about (how) we’ve let a couple games get away from us,” Shaw said. “… I’ve challenged them to improve and have next week be better than the previous week. That’s our mentality right now.”