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Stanford beef gives Cougars a ton of reasons for concern

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 29, 2015, 9:55 p.m.

Stanford guard Joshua Garnett (51) is a standout on an impressive Stanford line. (Associated Press / Associated Press)
Stanford guard Joshua Garnett (51) is a standout on an impressive Stanford line. (Associated Press / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – If only Washington State merely had to worry about quality when assessing the Stanford offensive line, and not quantity, as well.

It’s difficult enough that the Cardinal possesses such talent upfront, particularly along the interior where guard Josh Garnett – a Puyallup product – is the second best player at his position in the country according to Pro Football Focus.

The Cougars have plenty to deal with simply trying to overcome the meticulous precision and discipline of the unit, which is near mechanical in its execution.

But sometimes five offensive linemen aren’t enough heft for Stanford, which is known to add more in short-yardage situations, even breaking out a formation that involves seven offensive linemen, two tight ends in the backfield, a quarterback and a running back.

With so much girth running around, all in precision, it can be difficult for defenses to sort our where exactly running back Christian McCaffrey is. And then the Heisman Trophy candidate is gone.

“They’re sure going to make you have great eye-discipline on the back end because they’re just waiting to get you to where you’re undisciplined,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.

“These guys have to see it as a challenge. It’s different. We’ve been in a position this year where every week kind of presents a new theme, and that’s one of the themes for this week.”

McCaffrey is Stanford’s most-utilized weapon in the backfield, and he will likely pick up the 47 rushing yards he needs to get 1,000 for the season against WSU on Saturday. He is also Stanford’s leading receiver and, thanks to his kick-return prowess, he is currently on pace to break Barry Sanders’ 27-year-old record for all-purpose yards in a single season.

But McCaffrey, the son of 13-year NFL vet Ed McCaffrey, isn’t the only Cardinal player who can take advantage of Stanford’s exceptional offensive line play. Barry Sanders Jr., whose dad holds the record his teammate is gunning for, averages 7.1 yards per carry himself.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan averages 225.1 passing yards per game and completes two-thirds of his passes.

Nearly every defense is predicated around stopping the run first, and that will likely be the case for the Cougars against Stanford. But the Cardinal seem to have a back-alley to take whenever a defense closes a door and the team has only been held under 31 points once, in its season-opener.

“The problem is they do each concept and each personnel group very well,” Grinch said. “They’re not just big and physical, they’re also, from a speed standpoint, fairly elite. They’ll attack you multiple, multiple ways.”

Though the Cougars struggle against fast quarterbacks who can run and pass, the front seven has shown itself to adapt against the run when the quarterback does not present a running threat. The Cougars held the Wildcats to 2.6 yards per carry in the first half of last week’s win, before UA subbed in speedier quarterback Jerrard Randall.

Oregon State and Oregon presented quarterbacks who were threats to run, although the Beavers running backs were not especially effective against the Cougars. But WSU was not worried about California’s stoic quarterback Jared Goff’s rushing abilities, and held the Golden Bears to more than 100 yards below their average rushing total.

“I think we’ve got a little urgency about ourselves,” said defensive line coach Joe Salave’a. “I think that’s the biggest thing. The kids are a little bit more self-motivated than previous years.”

WSU’s defenders will need plenty of motivation Saturday night against Stanford. Because the Cardinal offensive linemen are going to be good, and there are going to be a lot of them.