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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Stanford

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Don’t take your eyes off …

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich announced Monday that Craig Stutzmann, the Cougars’ co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, took over primary play-calling responsibilities two weeks ago, replacing OC Brian Smith. In a defense-fueled win over Cal, WSU’s run-and-shoot offense showed a few flashes of its best self. It wasn’t highly consistent, but it fared better in spurts than it had at any point earlier this season against FBS competition. In last weekend’s 31-24 defeat of Oregon State, the Cougars got creative, “dressing up” the offense and implementing a few new wrinkles, Rolovich said. In one instance, they threw a touchdown pass out of a bunch formation. On several plays, they cleared the backfield of tailbacks and trotted out three slotbacks. WSU’s offense had looked somewhat vanilla earlier this season, settling for short out-route passes and zone runs that mostly went nowhere. It seems as though the Cougars have become more inventive and capable of explosive plays with Stutzmann in a new role, and quarterback Jayden de Laura in rhythm with his QB coach. The OSU game represented a major step in the right direction, but the Cougars’ offense still has yet to put together a complete performance. WSU scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the second half versus the Beavers after squandering red-zone opportunities and recording only three points before intermission. The Cougars’ offense has collapsed in the second half in four games. Can it avoid those prolonged stretches of stagnation for four quarters?

When WSU has the ball …

The Cougars have been held under 100 yards on the ground in three games. Across the past two weeks, they have thrown the ball 88 times while tailbacks Deon McIntosh and Max Borghi have combined for 47 runs. For WSU, increasing the carries this weekend might be worth exploring. Stanford has conceded 200 or more rushing yards in five of its six games this season. The Cardinal’s rushing defense ranks last in the Pac-12 at 219.8 yards per game. In a 28-10 loss at Arizona State last weekend, Stanford permitted 255 yards on 44 carries (an average of 5.8 yards per try). “These guys are 50-50 run-pass on first and second downs, or really close to it,” Stanford coach David Shaw noted of WSU. “If you’re not looking for the run, they’ll keep running it. If you lose your pass responsibility looking at the run, then it’s the (run-pass option) game that kills you.” The Cougs have developed into one of the more productive Pac-12 passing teams. They’re second in yards per game (259) and the steady-developing de Laura sits in a tie atop the conference with 12 TD tosses. But their ground game – featuring a pair of senior NFL prospects – has left much to be desired. De Laura, known as a crafty runner, has only taken off out of the pocket twice in the past two games. Stanford’s defense is among the conference’s best in limiting its opponents’ passing yardage, so look for WSU’s run-and-shoot to test the Cardinal in the trenches early.

When Stanford has the ball …

Shaw wants people to know: Statistics can be misleading. On paper, the Cardinal are the worst rushing team in the Pac-12 at a mere 98 yards per game. Stanford was limited to just 13 net yards in its loss at Arizona State last weekend, yet according to Shaw, it wasn’t because the Cardinal were getting smothered by the Devils’ front seven. “We’re not going to adhere to or be tied to specific statistics,” Shaw said. “We’re always going to do what we think is right. We knew, walking into Arizona State, with the way our quarterback was playing, with the way our receivers were playing, they were going to make us throw the ball. And if they’re going to make us throw the ball, we’re going to take advantage of it.” ASU rarely lightened its defensive box, which often included seven bodies. So the Cardinal figured: Why not keep throwing it? They have a budding star in sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee, who has developed into a pro-caliber player, and a trio of long-limbed receivers, each of whom stands above 6-foot-3. Stanford’s passing attack is more efficient, statistically, then all but one Pac-12 team (USC). “They’re throwing the ball more than you’d think a stereotypical Stanford team would,” Rolovich said. The Cardinal have long been distinguished by their physical running. “It’s going to be a game we expect them to throw it around.” McKee has only tossed three picks – all last week and WSU hangs its hat on forcing turnovers, ranking seventh nationally with 14 takeaways. “Our identity we’ve made right now is: We’re going to get the ball at least once or twice, maybe a few times in a game,” WSU linebacker Justus Rogers said.

Models of consistency

Rolovich named four Cougars Wednesday when asked who have been his most consistent players from the beginning of the season to the present. He first pointed to sixth-year left tackle Liam Ryan, the reigning Pac-12 Lineman of the Week for his performance against Oregon State. Ryan, a fourth-year starter, didn’t allow a sack or a QB pressure. Nickel Armani Marsh, and edges Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. were Rolovich’s other nominees. Marsh has been the Cougars’ top coverage defender this year, per Pro Football Focus. Stone is PFF’s highest-graded Coug overall with an 84.1 mark, according to A grade of 85 or above is typical of a future NFL player. Stone and Jackson have emerged as vocal captains, and both seem to make momentum-swinging plays each week. Rolovich could probably have included right tackle Abraham Lucas. PFF reported over Twitter Wednesday that Lucas has not allowed a sack in 264 pass-blocking snaps. No other FBS lineman has played so much without surrendering a sack.