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With Bryce Love hobbling and options aplenty at WR, Stanford offense has taken on different look in 2018

PULLMAN – It isn’t a typo or submission error. Wipe the dust from your reading specs and the same numbers pop up on the NCAA’s statistical database. Select “Rushing Offense” from the team statistic dropdown menu and click on the third page, which lists the teams ranked in the bottom third of the country in rushing yards per game, Nos. 101-129.

Scroll down some, keep scrolling and eventually you’ll stumble across both of the teams that will be squaring off Saturday in a 4 p.m. Pac-12 North showdown in Palo Alto, California.

It’s no surprise No. 14 Washington State (6-1, 3-1) sits at No. 128 nationally with 72.6 rush yards per game. The Cougars are quite familiar with page three of the NCAA’s rushing offense database and have been since Mike Leach and his Air Raid arrived in Pullman seven years ago.

Two spots higher than WSU – and this is the kicker – is No. 24 Stanford, a school that’s long been synonymous with power run schemes and All-American tailbacks. The 126th-ranked running team in the country is averaging 91.6 yards per game – and that’s after a 127-yard rushing effort against Arizona State. Stanford, on 59 more carries, has six fewer rushing touchdowns than the Cougars. The Cardinal average 3.07 yards per carry. The Cougars average 3.39.

It’s a two-fold dilemma for Stanford’s offense this season. The centerpiece of a usually potent backfield is wounded and the Cardinal have stumbled across a few wide receivers capable of taking the passing game to new heights.

“Those big receivers, the way they pin people on their backs and make plays – I’ve said all along they’re good coaches,” WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “They play to their strengths and this year with the receivers they have, it obviously makes more sense for them to use them more.”

Bryce Love, the running back that glided through Pac-12 defenses for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns last season and captured the attention of college football fans every time he ripped off a 50-yard run – of which there were 13 – has spent most of his senior season hobbled with a sore ankle. That’s still the case this week, as the Cardinal host the Cougars at Stanford. Per the San Francisco Chronicle, the senior, who’s already missed two games this season, is “day to day.”

Love’s broken off just one of those 50-yarders this year and he’s accumulated 348 rushing yards after five games. Through five games of the 2017 season, he’d already crossed the 1,000-yard barrier.

After a DNP against Utah, Love returned to the field last week against Arizona State, carrying the ball 11 times for 21 yards before being pulled from the game for precautionary reasons.

“It’s hard to put a percentage on it. I’d say he was somewhere approaching 90 percent, not quite 90,” Shaw said Thursday after Stanford’s 20-13 win in Tempe. “But once he got warm and got loose, there were a couple 4- or 5-yard runs in there that were really impressive. His acceleration in short areas was impressive.”

The Cougars are playing it safe and approaching Love the same way they did last year when he was soaring up Heisman polls and climbing NFL Draft boards as the nation’s most dangerous ball-carrier.

“I know he’s a good player and I expect him to be 100 percent,” middle linebacker Jahad Woods said Tuesday.

But Love’s regression has coincided with the gradual rise of junior quarterback K.J. Costello and to a greater extent, senior receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. It’s been a season-long game of pitch and catch for those two, who’ve hooked up 37 times for 632 yards and nine touchdowns.

It’s given Stanford another reason to break tradition and, at least temporarily, swap out power-run schemes for a revived passing game. The Cardinal have put the ball on the ground 209 times this season and thrown it 216. In 2017, Stanford ran it 480 times and passed it 363. In 2016, with Christian McCaffrey and Love on The Farm, Stanford logged 523 pass plays and only 304 runs.

“Stanford’s kind of changed their style of play. They’re throwing it a bunch now,” Leach said Monday. “They always used to be grind, grind, grind, play-action and now they’re throwing it quite a bit, so it’s a little different dimension. Offensively, it’s a different Stanford team than we’ve played.”

Arcega-Whiteside, not Love, is probably the single player the Cougars would like to contain if given the choice. The 6-foot-3 wideout opened his senior season with six catches for 226 yards and three touchdowns against San Diego State. He averages better than 90 yards per game and constantly creates matchup issues in the red zone.

“They do a good job, and they’ve been like this a long time, of almost treating it like a basketball rebound,” Claeys said. “They pin you on their back and throw that ball up and go get it. So one thing is, hopefully, they don’t get down around the red zone and keep them out of that area and take that throw away from them.”