STANFORD, Calif. – In desperate need of a pick-me-up, Washington State bounced back in convincing fashion.
The Cougars snapped a three-game losing streak, securing a major boost of momentum at a critical stage of their season.
For WSU, Saturday’s game against Stanford felt like a must-win. For the sake of their postseason hopes, the Cougars probably couldn’t risk a loss to one of the weakest opponents on their schedule.
Not only did they come away with a crucial victory, but the Cougars performed in such a way that might change the outlook for the rest of their season. WSU scored its most lopsided win since 2019, dominating the Cardinal thoroughly in a 52-14 decision Saturday afternoon at Stanford Stadium.
“Confidence is a special thing,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “Winning in this manner breathes life into our guys and reaffirms the mission. … Game day is our test, and to go out and ace our test like that is a big confidence booster.
“They’ll remember November. This is a heckuva start to that.”
With three games remaining, WSU is one win away from a bowl berth. Now, a postseason bid seems more than likely for the Cougars after their most complete effort of the season.
“There was a look in their eyes,” Dickert said of the Cougars. “They were hungry. They wanted to show the type of team we could be.”
WSU (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) piled up a season-high 514 yards during its widest margin of victory over Stanford in series history. The Cougars’ defense outclassed Stanford’s offense and collected four takeaways after forcing just three across its first five Pac-12 contests. The Cougars’ offense operated with a level of rhythm that hadn’t been seen in weeks. WSU’s ground game shined. For the first time this year, the Cougars’ offensive line finished a game without having given up a sack.
“The offense and defense were hitting on all cylinders,” Cougar linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “It was complementary football. The offense leaned on us and we were there. The defense leaned on the offense, and they were there. There wasn’t a drop at any point of the game. … In other games, we struggled to do that.”
The Cougars highlighted a couple of facets of the game in the week leading up to their matchup with Stanford (3-6, 1-6): rushing offense and turnover-forcing defense.
WSU amassed a season-high – by a significant amount – 306 rushing yards. The Cougars came into the game ranked last in the Pac-12 in every statistical rushing category.
“You get what you emphasize,” Dickert said. “We emphasized running the ball, and 300 yards of rushing is just incredible.”
Saturday marked WSU’s first 300-yard rushing day since 2006 (344 against Idaho).
The Cougars forced and recovered four fumbles in the first half.
“We emphasized taking the ball away for the last 10 days,” Dickert added, “and we came and took it away.”
WSU’s shorthanded rushing offense faltered in the past two games, but the Cougars made it a point to boost their carries against the Cardinal’s exploitable rushing defense, which has surrendered 300-plus yards in three games.
With starting tailback Nakia Watson back in the fold after missing two games with an injury, WSU looked like a different team on the ground. Watson burst through wide gaps at the line and powered through tacklers, totaling a career-high 166 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
“I was super eager to get back,” Watson said. “It sucks watching my teammates practice and watching those games and not being able to do a thing about it. Now that I’m back, I’m super excited. I gave it my all and I felt like I had something to prove to myself and my teammates.”
The Cougars piled up more than 100 rushing yards – and more than 200 total yards – over their first three possessions, breaking away from the Cardinal early after back-to-back Stanford three-and-outs to start the game.
Watson broke free for a 65-yard burst on WSU’s second play from scrimmage, setting up a short touchdown grab from true freshman Leyton Smithson. The Cougars went back and forth between effective running plays and well-designed quick passes into open field throughout their second and third possessions, which ended in a 6-yard TD catch from Anderson Grover and a 15-yard TD on a quarterback draw from Cameron Ward, respectively.
“Nakia just brings something different between the tackles, and our guys wanted to go out and prove that we could move bodies and execute that way with a strong run game,” Dickert said.
WSU forced and recovered four fumbles in the first half, boosting its takeaway total on the year to 13. Linebacker Francisco Mauigoa stripped the ball away twice. Early in the second quarter, Mauigoa punched it free from the grasp of Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels. Cougars safety Jaden Hicks scooped up the loose ball and raced it back 17 yards for a touchdown, stretching the lead to 28-7.
Four plays later, Cougars cornerback Chau Smith-Wade made up for a 22-yard reception, chasing down Cardinal receiver Elijah Higgins and poking the ball away. WSU linebacker Travion Brown fell on it. The WSU offense marched downfield and Ward connected with Donovan Ollie on a 9-yard, back-shoulder passing touchdown on fourth-and-3.
On Stanford’s ensuing possession, Smith-Wade added another defensive highlight, pulling the ball away from Cardinal receiver Benjamin Yurosek, and Henley was there to collect another takeaway. WSU scored on the next play, when Watson juked two defenders with a sharp cut to his left and cruised upfield for a 41-yard TD with a minute left in the first half. That made the score 42-7.
“Both sides came with it today, from the jump,” said Ward, who finished 16 of 32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. “We needed this win, just to get that feel back of winning.”
WSU managed 41 combined points across its past three games – losses to USC, Oregon State and Utah. At halftime Saturday, the team had already generated 335 yards of offense and a season-high scoring total. The Cougars finished with their highest scoring output since beating Oregon State 54-53 on Nov. 23, 2019. WSU’s offense had taken the bulk of blame for the team’s losing streak. The Cougs took out their frustrations, pouring it on against a softer opponent.
“We didn’t flinch,” Dickert said. “There’s so much outside noise and we stayed with the process. … This is the first year in this offense. This is Game 9. We want to do these things for a long time, for the long term. We didn’t sit there and make drastic changes or overemphasize. … We took a hard look in the mirror and were very critical of (shortcomings).”
Nine Cougars logged catches. Smithson, Grover and slotback Orion Peters scored their first career touchdowns. WSU subbed its reserve team onto the field early in the fourth quarter. True freshman quarterback John Mateer and rookie running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker made their first career appearances and combined for 108 yards on eight carries. Mateer fired a 27-yard TD to Peters.
Stanford tallied 337 yards. Its limited ground game, missing three tailbacks, was held to 71 yards and an average of 2.5 yards per carry. Standout QB Tanner McKee completed 23 of 40 passes for 236 yards. The teams played in front of a sparse crowd of 26,515.
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