PULLMAN – Here is what to watch for when Washington State hosts Stanford on Saturday evening.
When Stanford has the ball …
On offense, Stanford is a lot like Washington State: The Cardinal want to throw the ball. The new leader is quarterback Ashton Daniels, a sophomore who solidified his starting role during the past three games. In that span, he has tossed six touchdown passes, completing 60% of his attempts each time out and racking up passing yards totals that hover in the 300s.
His favorite target has been wideout Elic Ayomanor, also a sophomore, who has racked up three straight productive games: 13 catches for 294 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado; eight catches for 90 yards against UCLA; and nine catches for 146 yards and one score against Washington.
Stanford’s weapons run a little thin after those two. True freshman wide receiver Tiger Bachmeier has reeled in 30 catches and one touchdown this fall. Running backs Casey Filkins and EJ Smith have carried the load at tailback, but they haven’t churned out many yards (or much consistency), so the Cardinal have turned to the passing attack to sustain their offense.
“(Daniels) has been phenomenal,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “He reminds me of (WSU quarterback) Cam (Ward)-ish. He’s really hard to bring down and sack. He’s very accurate with the ball. They’re very willing to take the ball down the field, and their scheme is really, really unique – kind of under center, double wing. Coach (Troy Taylor) has done a good job of just getting you all different types of ways. So they’ve done a good job with that.”
At least ostensibly, this represents a chance for Washington State’s defense to re-establish some confidence. The Cougars have Pro Football Focus’ worst run defense in the Pac-12 (right below Stanford), but the Cardinal have produced forgettable results on the ground. Their run offense is the worst in the conference, per PFF. Daniels has racked up yards on scrambles, but the Cardinal have received little from their running backs.
Can WSU take advantage? The Cougars have made a habit of missing tackles, particularly against run-heavy teams like Oregon and Arizona State, but they figure to see more passing offense against Stanford.
In that way, Washington State cornerback Chau Smith-Wade is out with an injury at a particularly bad time for his team. He missed last week’s game against ASU, prompting redshirt freshman Javan Robinson to take his place, which Dickert confirmed will be his team’s plan against Stanford.
Can Robinson hold up in coverage, even if he’s assigned to Ayomanor? Can the Cougars correct their bad habit of overplaying? The answers may swing WSU’s outing on defense.
When Washington State has the ball …
If ever there was a time for the Cougars’ offense to roar back to life, particularly on the ground, this is it. As mentioned, Stanford fields the Pac-12’s worst run defense, good news for a WSU team that may be without starting running back Nakia Watson (leg/ankle) and will miss walk-on Dylan Paine, who has come on strong since the team dismissed scatback Jaylen Jenkins in October.
If Watson misses the game, expect redshirt freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker to accept the workload in the running game. He was expected to get more carries last week, in WSU’s loss to ASU, but he posted just one attempt for 8 yards .
He might be in line for more carries this weekend – whether or not Watson can play. If the Cougars can open up their offense and create some meaningful separation, it’s not so difficult to imagine a world where Schlenbaker gets more reps and sets himself up for a bigger role down the road – this season or beyond.
For WSU, that may take on more importance this weekend because Stanford figures to roll out the defense that thwarted the Cougars’ offense earlier in the season, the coverage-heavy scheme that only rushes three or more – “to try to take that old mold of some of the successes,” Dickert said.
If that comes to pass, Washington State will need to run the ball effectively enough to force the Cardinal out of it.
The Cougars have been here multiple times: How do they beat a defense that doesn’t respect their run game? The answer has always been to run the ball, but they haven’t done so on a consistent basis yet this season.
Still, WSU’s offense has looked better in recent weeks. The Cougars have settled on a starting offensive line, and those guys have fared well in pass-protection, which has given Ward plenty of time to sit back and throw. He hasn’t been perfect – he’s looked a little indecisive at times, turnover-prone at others – but he has developed a nice rhythm with Kyle Williams, a transfer wideout.
“Watching film,” Williams said about the chemistry. “Finding time to watch film, talk about stuff throughout practices, making sure we get certain looks and what he sees and what I see, just being on that same page. And then just that trust factor – I feel like he trusts me to throw the ball and know that I’m gonna make those plays.”
Against a woeful Stanford pass defense, Ward might not have much trouble trusting Williams anyway.