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Analysis: Washington State finds remedy for recent struggles, beats Stanford soundly in return home

Washington State wide receivers Brandon Arconado (19) and Travell Harris  react after Arconado ran the ball for a long first down during the second half Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Before Washington State and Stanford met at the middle of the field to exchange handshakes, pleasantries and well wishes, Cougars receiver Travell Harris took out his own patch of turf and carried out a short acrobatics show for anyone who cared to watch.

The small, exuberant receiver launched off both feet, tucked his knees into his chest and rotated his body through the air before coming back down to earth.

Harris stuck the landing and so did the Cougars in their long-awaited return to Martin Stadium. WSU announced a sellout crowd for just its second home game in 56 days, and an audience of 32,592 got to enjoy much more than Harris backflips in a rousing 49-22 win over Stanford to extend the Cougars’ win streak over the Cardinal to four games.

But Harris’ stunt was perhaps the best expression of what the Cougars and their fans were feeling after WSU improved to 5-5 overall and 2-5 in conference play, moving one game closer to bowl eligibility.

“I would’ve did a backflip if I can,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “I would’ve fallen on my neck or something. But it was a really good feeling, just having those tough losses. It’s a really good feeling, it feels like we’re playing our brand of football.”

The Cougars did what they do best, and a lot of it, on a night that saw quarterback Anthony Gordon hit 500 passing yards for the second time this season and throw his 35th, 36th, 37th, 38th and 39th touchdowns of the year to surpass former teammates Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew for WSU’s single-season record, which was 38.

In some ways, though, the Cougars won by playing Stanford’s brand, too.

The most productive passing offense in college football gave way to Max Borghi and the run game more than usual. The sophomore tailback carried the Cougars on the ground, rushing 15 times for 111 yards and a touchdown, as WSU outclassed Stanford in an area in which the Cardinal have historically been much more proficient.

WSU finished with 104 rushing yards. Stanford had six.

“Every year we play Stanford, Stanford is always a physical team that’s going to run the ball down your throat,” Woods said. “That’s what we expected and I think they only had 11 attempts or something. But it was still a hard-fought game and still a physical game.”

The Cardinal weren’t – and these days, aren’t – as committed to the run game as they have been under coach David Shaw, but former five-star quarterback Davis Mills made sure the Cougars’ defensive backs got a full day of work, completing 33 of 50 passes for 504 yards and three touchdowns.

WSU’s secondary has battled attrition all season and stumbled on some more last week when two DBs were kicked off the team for an unspecified violation of team rules. That attrition spilled into the first half, when Mills and his receivers unloaded seven explosive plays (passes of 20 yards or longer) on the Cougars and scored on a 28-yard throw from Mills to Simi Fehoko and a 23-yarder from Mills to Michael Wilson.

There were a few more chunk plays for Stanford in the second half, but WSU mitigated the damage by coming up with key interceptions on Mills at opportune times. Skyler Thomas read the QB’s eyes on a throw to the left sideline, then jumped in front to make the grab at WSU’s 40-yard line.

Gordon and the offense went 49 yards in seven plays, scoring on a short 2-yard dump-off to Borghi that the roommates had apparently mapped out earlier in the week.

“My first touchdown, actually, wasn’t a play we had scripted for this week,” Borghi said. “Me and Gordon talked about it back at the house and we were like, ‘We know we’re going to score on this so we’re just going to call it whether (head coach Mike) Leach likes it or not.’

“Obviously, we scored, so he can’t complain for that one.”

Borghi, who had his fourth 100-yard rushing effort of the season, punched in another touchdown later in the quarter that was the result of another opportunistic play from the defense. Stanford was knocking on the door when Woods got in the way of Mills’ pass toward the end zone, making a clean pick at the goal line to effectively seal the Cougars’ second Pac-12 win.

“We got some turnovers, I thought that was good,” Leach said. “Then I thought we made some plays in some key situations. We’re still fighting giving up explosives and third down, but it was definitely very crucial points and two turnovers that helped us a great deal. And I do think we’re improving on defense.”

Woods broke the 100-tackle barrier, leading the Cougars with nine, and he had one of the team’s two sacks. In the wake of Daniel Isom’s dismissal, Derrick Langford was rewarded with more playing time, and the cornerback used it well, recording two pass breakups and three tackles.

Thomas relinquished his starting strong safety role to Pat Nunn, but he was superb once he got into the game, totaling six tackles and an interception.

Gordon’s top receiver for the third straight game was Brandon Arconado, who finished with nine catches for 148 yards and one touchdown. Easop Winston Jr. had 11 catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns.