PULLMAN – Jake Dickert makes no bones about his favorite candies. As Halloween rolled around earlier in the week, Washington State’s head coach indulged a little, taking a few pieces from his kids and enjoying his favorite of all: Reese’s peanut butter cups.
“My favorite candy bar, though – if you call it a candy bar – is a Caramello,” Dickert said. “They just get me every time. It’s phenomenal.”
What would be even sweeter for WSU, though, is ending their four-game slide with a win over Stanford on Saturday.
For the past month, the Cougars have been starving for a win. This skid began in early October, when they fell UCLA, and they’ve only tumbled further since – a lopsided home loss to Arizona; a road loss to Oregon; a concerning road setback last week to Arizona State, handing the Sun Devils their first FBS win of the season.
Before that, Washington State’s home matchup with Stanford seemed like a gimme. Now it’s anything but. The Cougars have fallen from grace, and they might be 13-point favorites, but they’ve shown that chalking up wins in advance is a fool’s errand.
So how does WSU end the skid? The Cougars can get back to what fueled their spotless start: passing the ball. The Cardinal (2-6, 1-5 Pac-12) field the worst passing defense in all of FBS, yielding 322.5 yards per game, and they’ve permitted 40-plus points in four consecutive games. That has earned them Pro Football Focus’ worst defensive grade in the Pac-12 by more than 10 full points.
Under first-year head coach Troy Taylor, Stanford has languished on defense, but the Cardinal have made a habit of staying in games – at least some.
A few weeks ago, Stanford eked out a 46-43 double-overtime road win over Colorado. Last week, it hung with Washington until the fourth quarter.
The Cardinal roll out several interesting players – quarterback Ashton Daniels has been on a heater recently, receiver Elic Ayomanor has flourished and cornerback Collin Wright has established himself as one of the team’s best defenders – but for Washington State, the game is less about the opponent and more about itself, trying to get back on track and salvage the season before it’s too late.
In that way, the Cougars have lots to clean up, but they can do so . Their defense has not generated a turnover since the UCLA game. Ron Stone Jr. has not secured a sack since the Wisconsin game. WSU’s run defense desperately needs to improve and, with starting running back Nakia Watson questionable and backup Dylan Paine out, its run game could benefit from a big performance.
There are lots of question marks around this Washington State team, in other words, and now to earn bowl eligibility, the Cougars get four tries to grab two wins. Their remaining schedule : home against Stanford, away against California, home against Colorado, away against Washington.
Can they get there? Maybe so, but WSU hasn’t earned the right to look forward past its upcoming opponent, and that’s Stanford.
“The biggest point probably the last four weeks has been our tackling and our angles. It just continues to show up,” Dickert said. “So if we have continued problems, we gotta go out on the practice field and fix it. So those are the things that we’re focused on heading into this Stanford game.
“Offenses in this league are challenging. I mean that. With things you work on that you see, it’s like a new offense every week. So we gotta be able to adapt and communicate within our back end.”
To stop Stanford’s offense, which recorded 33 points in last week’s loss to Washington, WSU will need to stop the run. The Cougars haven’t done so much at all this season, a testament to their inability to tackle and to create takeaways. They’ve owned up to it after games and during the week. Can they actually do it this weekend?
They could begin by starting redshirt freshman linebacker Buddah Al-Uqdah, who took the place of senior Devin Richardson last week against Arizona State. In that one, Al-Uqdah graded out the best among WSU defenders, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him back out there against Stanford.
The Cougars have also been playing everyday interior lineman Nusi Malani at edge, and in two games with limited snaps, he hasn’t recorded a quarterback pressure. He could get his first on Saturday.
Stanford’s offensive line ranks second to last in the Pac-12 in pass blocking, per PFF, and the Cardinal have allowed 15 sacks this season.
That means it’s also a chance for Stone and Brennan Jackson, WSU’s edge tandem, to get back in the sack column. Stone has not done so since the Cougars upset Wisconsin, and while Jackson has had four since then, he hasn’t reached the quarterback in either of WSU’s past two games.
More important, though, Washington State will need to stop the run. One of the bigger reasons why Jackson and Stone haven’t wreaked havoc in the backfield like they usually do has to do with their team’s run defense, which hasn’t given opposing offenses any reason to throw the ball.
Both Oregon and ASU attempted just 25 passes, opting to run the ball right at WSU, which couldn’t do much about it.
The Cougars’ offense may well have its way with the Cardinal’s defense. The hosts can return to the win ledger by shoring up their defense. That may be the only way for them to win this one – and to infuse optimism back into a season that has gone all but dry in that department.