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

Theme of the game …

Washington State (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) has lost four of its past five games, all against Pac-12 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.

Stanford (3-5, 1-5) has met five of the conference’s top six teams this season. The Cardinal dropped each of those games.

Both the Cougars and Cardinal are looking at Saturday’s game as a must-win opportunity against a softer opponent.

“Everybody is fighting for those last bowl-eligible spaces,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We’re one of them. Stanford is fighting their tail off.

“There’s two dogs and one piece of meat out there on Saturday, and we gotta go take it.”

With postseason hopes hanging in the balance, WSU meets Stanford at 12:30 p.m. in Stanford, California.

When WSU has the ball …

Coming off its three least-productive games of the season, the Cougars’ offense is in dire need of a bounce-back

WSU gave up 28 negative plays (15 sacks) during the three-game skid.

“It starts with the details,” Dickert said. “It starts with every man doing their job. It starts with us executing. It starts with not getting behind the chains. There’s a lot of things we can do.”

WSU managed 50 yards on the ground over its past two games, losing 75 yards on sacks. The Cougars’ depth chart at the tailback position is unclear. Freshman backup Jaylen Jenkins, who took over for injured starter Nakia Watson earlier this month, sustained an injury last week versus Utah and it’s uncertain whether he will return Saturday. Third-year walk-on Dylan Paine stepped in against the Utes. Dickert left the door open for a change at the tailback position, saying, “It could be anyone,” taking reps at the position against Stanford.

The Cougars’ rushing offense ranks last in the Pac-12 in every major statistical category. The Cardinal’s rushing defense is among the worst in the conference, surrendering over 200 yards on the ground per game.

Stanford ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing defense (212.5 yards), but that number is skewed – opponents aren’t passing much against the Cardinal, considering the team’s porous rushing defense.

The Cougars rely on their passing game, but their aerial attack has been disappointing in recent weeks. WSU’s offensive line is struggling to protect quarterback Cameron Ward. Deep routes don’t have time to develop. The Cougars often dial up screen passes, but those plays came up empty time and again versus the Utes.

“We gotta trust in our technique. We gotta be better on the perimeter, gotta be more dominant,” slotback Lincoln Victor said of WSU’s quick-passing game. “We’ve been putting in work this whole week for dominating on the perimeter. … We’re running a lot of things. I think there’s a core group of plays that we kinda got working this week. I think it’s going to be a simple game plan. It’s going to be a matter of if we go out there and execute, and I believe we will.”

Stanford’s defense is one of the most productive pass-rushing units in the Pac-12, tied at third – along with WSU – with 21 sacks.

“We gotta make sure we’re giving Cam time and creating some of those run lanes,” Dickert said. “We need to win in space. We haven’t been able to do that in the last four weeks.”

When Stanford has the ball …

Owing to his team’s severely shorthanded running game, Stanford coach David Shaw expects a fair amount of “trial and error” on offense this weekend.

The Cardinal want to establish the run, but they’re not sure how effective they’ll be in doing so with deep-reserve players shouldering the workload at tailback. Their ground game will be a work in progress versus WSU. Stanford will presumably lean heavily on its passing game. Quarterback Tanner McKee must adapt to his new surroundings and take on a more pressure-packed role than he’s probably accustomed to.

The Cardinal lost starting running back EJ Smith to a season-ending injury early this year. Backup Casey Filkins is also unavailable due to a significant injury. Third-stringer Caleb Robinson handled RB duties in Stanford’s loss to UCLA last weekend, but he suffered an injury this week and will be sidelined for at least one game, Shaw told local reporters Tuesday.

“There’s some ability back there, just not a lot of experience,” Shaw said of his team’s RB situation. … “Right now, we don’t have the health at the running back position, but across the board – at most positions – we’re healthy.”

Atop Stanford’s depth chart at RB is Brendon Barrow, a scout-team player at the start of the season. The Cardinal’s No. 2 running back is Mitch Leigber, who played the position in high school but transitioned to safety when he enrolled at Stanford last fall.

“With the shape our running back room is in, (Leigber) was able to flip back over last week,” Shaw said. “He learned a lot, got in a couple of plays and now we think he’s in a position where he can help us.”

Traditionally a run-heavy team, Stanford underwent a change in identity this season. The Cardinal use spread formations more often than they had in past years.

“When you think of Stanford’s offense, you think of all these big bodies (at RB and tight end) and fullbacks,” Dickert said. “That’s not what they do anymore. It’s a completely different deal. I think McKee has next-level talent. … We gotta have a plan to stop him. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he’s a big, strong pocket passer.”

NFL scouts are impressed with McKee’s size and pro-style pocket presence. The second-year Stanford starter is widely projected to be taken in the 2023 draft.

McKee’s numbers this season (11 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 61.2% completion rate) aren’t terrific, but he’s not getting much help from his running backs and offensive line.

The Cardinal rank ninth in the Pac-12 in both passing offense (255.1 yards per game) and rushing offense (126.6 yards per game). They have surrendered 25 sacks – tied for 11th in the conference.

“When he’s been clean, he’s been as good as the best guys in college football,” Shaw said of McKee. “When we’re not able to protect him, when we’re not able to offset things with the running game, it becomes difficult.”

The Cougars are searching for an improvement in pass-rushing production after logging just three sacks across their past three games. WSU registered 14 sacks in its first three games this year.

“We’re trying to capitalize on the guys that are the weakest links,” said Cougars defensive tackle Amir Mujahid, a Bay Area native. “I’m not taking any credit from them … but we can definitely go in there and make something happen.

“(McKee) is a good quarterback, but he’s not a big scrambler, so that is good in our favor. He likes to step up in the pocket, so we can get a lot of sacks on him.”

For the most part, WSU’s defense played well enough over the past three games, allowing an average of 25 points per game. The Cougars lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.8 ppg), while Stanford sits ninth in scoring offense (23.6 ppg).

Another priority for the Cougars: tacking on more takeaways. WSU, a top-five turnover-forcing team in the nation last year, has collected just three turnovers in Pac-12 play this year.

Did you know?

Stanford’s 12th-year head coach Shaw is the second-longest tenured coach in the Pac-12 behind Utah’s Kyle Whittingham. Shaw is also the 10th-longest tenured coach in all of the FBS. The 50-year-old was an assistant in the NFL for 10 years before landing the offensive coordinator job at Stanford, his alma mater, in 2007.

Dickert, in his first year at WSU, began his coaching career in 2007, starting out as a graduate assistant at his alma mater – Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Dickert, 39, is one of the youngest head coaches at the Power Five level. He is the third-youngest coach in the Pac-12, behind first-year Oregon coach Dan Lanning and first-year USC coach Lincoln Riley. Lanning, 36, is the youngest Power Five head coach.