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‘We need to take a big step forward to keep this thing moving’: At critical stage of season, Washington State visits Stanford

STANFORD, Calif. – Before the season, a matchup at Stanford probably wasn’t among the games Washington State fans had circled on their calendars. Now, there’s no mistaking the importance of this one.

It’s a critical stage of the season for the Cougars (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12), who have dropped three consecutive games – and four of their past five. For the sake of the team’s postseason hopes, WSU can’t risk a loss to the Cardinal (3-5, 1-5).

The Cougars, whose four losses have come against teams ranked in the AP Top 25, are in desperate need of a boost as they enter the final stretch of their campaign – the softest part of their schedule.

WSU kicks off against the Cardinal at 12:30 p.m. at Stanford Stadium (Pac-12 Network).

“With the skid and adversity and all those things – I’m not sitting in this seat for all of the easy times,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “I’m in this seat because of times like this, when it’s hard. My No. 1 job is to make sure our team believes in itself. I’m so energized because we have four amazing opportunities (left).”

The Cougars need two wins in their final four games to secure bowl eligibility. Stanford is arguably the weakest team remaining on the Cougars’ schedule. WSU is favored by five points.

The Cougars faltered on offense during their past three games, averaging just 13.6 points per game across losses to Southern Cal, Oregon State and Utah.

WSU produced 264 yards – its season low in Pac-12 competition – last Thursday in a 21-17 loss against the Utes.

“Thursday night we took a little step back,” Dickert said. “We need to take a big step forward to keep this thing moving.”

Stanford isn’t nearly as strong a defensive team as WSU’s last three opponents. The Cardinal’s defensive front is generating pressure at a respectable rate, and their secondary isn’t giving up huge yardage totals through the air, but the team hasn’t been tested much by high-volume passing attacks. That’s because Stanford’s rushing defense is exploitable.

But WSU’s ground game is short on depth and less productive than any rushing offense in the Pac-12, so the Cougars will presumably stick to their pass-first approach. Their Air Raid passing game went stagnant for long stretches during the losing streak.

“We’re not getting through enough progressions down the field,” Dickert said of his passing offense, which is hampered by protection issues – WSU has surrendered a conference-high 30 sacks. “And when you’re not getting production in your screen game, when you expect those to be 5 or 6 yards … we’re putting ourselves in some bad situations, some long third downs.

“(Quarterback Cameron Ward) still has all the talent to do it. We need to take the ball down the field, and we just haven’t been able to do that so far this season, at least not consistently.”

The Cougars’ defense has been pulling its weight, though the unit could use an uptick in takeaways and pass-rushing productivity. Still, WSU is holding opponents out of the end zone.

The Cougars lead the Pac-12 with 20.8 points allowed per game.

“There’s no question that we’ve had high expectations for the defense, and we’re proud about where those guys are at,” Dickert said. “But I think there’s some times we’ve been loose, and to win really close games against good opponents … you gotta play a certain way to be so dominant to win 14-10, 14-7 or 17-14. It just hasn’t quite been there.

“That’s not the way we want to win games, but I think we have the capabilities to be dominant and win some games that way.”

WSU’s defense has shown some lapses in its ability to defend strong rushing teams, but the Cougars should enjoy matchup advantages against a shorthanded Stanford ground game that is down to its fourth-string tailback.

Like the Cougars, the Cardinal depend on their passing game and a high-potential QB who has yet to meet expectations this season. Stanford signal-caller Tanner McKee is an NFL draft prospect, but his season has been underwhelming .

The Cardinal haven’t cracked the 30-point threshold in any FBS games this year. They couldn’t keep up in lopsided losses to four Top 25 opponents.

“We have not seen the best of Tanner McKee,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said, “much like I’d say you have not seen the best of our offense. Losing our top two running backs I think also truly affects the quarterback position.

“We can’t just be a drop-back operation. We have to be able to run the ball. We have to be balanced while at the same time utilizing our strengths, which is our pass game.”