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First look: Washington State looks to extend winning streak versus Stanford to five

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12), hoping to continue its midseason surge, plays the second game of a three-week homestand when it hosts Pac-12 North opponent Stanford (3-3, 2-2).

Where is it? Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. Saturday. It’s WSU’s sixth consecutive afternoon game.

Where can I watch it? ESPNU will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? Stanford, by one point.

How did they fare last week? WSU’s run-and-shoot offense erupted through the air after halftime and its defense stopped a final drive on the 4-yard line as the Cougars prevailed 31-24 against Oregon State in a homecoming thriller at Gesa Field. Stanford’s defense got bullied by No. 18 Arizona State’s run game, and the Cardinal were limited to just 13 yards rushing in a 28-10 loss in Tempe, Arizona. Stanford was coming off an overtime upset of then-No. 3 Oregon.

Why Stanford will win: On the whole, Stanford’s level of play has fluctuated by the week, but the Cardinal can almost always bank on steadiness from fast-improving sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee, who has emerged as an NFL Draft prospect. The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder has thrown for 1,449 yards and 12 touchdowns against just three picks – all of which came last week – on 63.4% passing. McKee ranks fifth in the conference in efficiency. The four QBs ranked above him, however, aren’t asked to pass the ball nearly as often as McKee, who is second in the league in attempts (183). That number contradicts Stanford’s run-first identity of past years under coach David Shaw. WSU hasn’t faced a gunslinger like McKee this season, or as rangy a receiving corps. Timely takeaways have been crucial in WSU’s past two wins, but Stanford rarely gives away possessions (six total turnovers). Defensively, the Cardinal boast an impressive pass defense that holds foes to 188.3 yards per game. The Cougars have been relying greatly on QB Jayden de Laura and his receivers this season.

Why WSU will win: Opposing quarterbacks haven’t fared well against WSU over the past three weeks. The Cougar defense limited signal-callers from Utah, Cal and Oregon State to a combined 48.7% completion rate, 149 yards per game and no touchdowns against three interceptions. The Cardinal’s rushing offense (98 yards per game) hasn’t provided necessary support. It ranks last in the Pac-12. So does their rushing defense (220 yards per game). De Laura’s career day made the headlines, but WSU running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh were effective in the second half against an Oregon State run defense that sits in the top 20 nationally. They combined for 73 yards on 13 carries (a 5.6 average) behind a Cougar offensive line playing close to its peak. Stanford surrenders more points than all but one Pac-12 team and has pocketed only five takeaways. WSU’s run-and-shoot offense, meanwhile, has momentum on its side after chalking up its most productive day of the Nick Rolovich era, accumulating 491 yards against Oregon State.

What happened last time? The teams were scheduled to play Nov. 21, 2020, but the game was canceled because of coronavirus-related absences on WSU’s end. Quarterback Anthony Gordon threw for 520 yards and the Cougs scored 24 unanswered points to close out a 49-22 win late in the 2019 season. The Cardinal lead the all-time series 40-29-1, but WSU has claimed the last four matchups. Stanford won eight straight in the series in 2008-15.

Things to know

1. Rolovich said Monday that co-offensive coordinator/QBs coach Craig Stutzmann took over play-calling duties two weeks ago against Cal, replacing offensive coordinator Brian Smith in that role. Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense had been sluggish early this season, and the second-year Coug boss said ahead of the Cal game that he planned to make some tweaks. “There’s something about the connection with the quarterback I think is important,” Rolovich said of Stutzmann’s new job. “I think he’s got a different flow, done a nice job. That second half (versus OSU) was really well-called.”

2. Stanford is one of five college football programs in the nation – along with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Iowa – with multiple wins over top-15 teams this season. The Cardinal torched No. 14 USC on Sept. 11 and nipped No. 3 Oregon in overtime Oct. 2. They have played four ranked opponents and are 2-2 in those matchups. Stanford is one of just three teams in the FBS scheduled to play six opponents ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. WSU hasn’t played a ranked team all year.

3. The breadth of WSU’s pass-catching corps is beginning to show. Statistically, the Cougars spread the ball around through the air more than any other Pac-12 team. They are one of two conference squads featuring five receivers with over 100 yards this season – another, Lincoln Victor, is just 5 yards shy of the 100-yard mark. WSU is the only team in the Pac-12 with three WRs in the league’s top 10 in catches: Travell Harris (third, 39 receptions), Calvin Jackson Jr. (fourth, 35) and De’Zhaun Stribling (eighth, 22). Six WSU receivers have scored touchdowns. On Monday, Rolovich called WSU’s WRs the most improved position group from the start of the campaign to now.