Earlier this week, Stanford head coach David Shaw paid the Washington State Cougars high praise -- calling them one of the most physical teams the Cardinal faced last season. “Physical,” of course, being the standard by which he judges his own team.
In that “physical” matchup last year, the Cardinal offense struggled mightily, yet managed 10 sacks and a pick six in a 24-17 win over the Cougars in Palo Alto. This year, they meet in at CenturyLink Field in the Seattle Game -- an annual contest that brings the Cougs to the western part of the state once a year.
Shaw said he sees the same thing from Washington State’s defense this year … only better.
“I see the same effort, guys are playing hard,” Shaw said. “They are playing aggressive defense and they are playing smart defense. You don’t see guys out of position. You see a very coordinated effort both in the front seven and the coverage responsibilities. That’s the key to team defense, everyone know what to do. You don’t see a lot of bombs going over guy’s heads. You don’t see a lot of wide-open receivers. You don’t see a lot of runs breaking for 30-, 40-yard gains. They’re a very disciplined group.”
There will be a lot of the same faces on the field Saturday for both teams -- but they are considerably different teams than they were last year. Stanford’s offense, with Kevin Hogan running the show and the lack of a dominant tight end, looks a lot different than it did when the teams met last season. And it’s a different Washington State defense -- wiser in the ways of Mike Breske’s 3-4 scheme and playing a physical brand of ball that has Shaw taking notice.
Case in point: Per ESPN Stats and Info, Hogan has targeted his tight ends just 8 percent of the time this year -- that’s down more than 40 percent from what it was last year. All seven touchdowns have gone to either wide receivers or running backs. In fact, the tight ends have only caught four passes in three games. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery has caught four of Hogan’s seven touchdowns.
Worth noting that the Cougars enter the game with the league's top passing defense, which has yet to allow a touchdown through the air. As a whole, the Cougars are yielding just 12 points per game and the defense has given up just four touchdowns.
But the bread and butter is still the running game. And Washington State coach Mike Leach knows it.
“Offensive line and defensive line, no question,” is what Leach told reporters when asked about Stanford’s strength. “Not to take away from any of the others, but when I think of Stanford that’s what I think of -- offensive line, defensive line and real tough running backs.”
So far this season, Washington State has thrown on 74 percent of its offensive plays -- second in the FBS only to SMU. And they are the only team that has attempted fewer than 20 rushes per game. Additionally, the Cougars are gaining 62 percent of their receiving yards after the catch.
That’s going to put a lot of pressure on a Stanford secondary that will be without safety Ed Reynolds, who was suspended for the first half of the game because of a targeting penalty against Arizona State. It was Reynolds who had the pick-six against the Cougars last season.
“I think Ed Reynolds learned a lesson,” Shaw said. “I think we all have, continually. We rep it every single day in practice. I was honestly shocked because Ed never tackles like that. But he lowered his head and this is the result."
Despite that loss, and the loss of Stanford All-American offensive guard David Yankey, who returned home to Georgia this week to deal with an unspecified family issue, Leach said he’s still expecting Stanford’s best.
“I think they’re one of the top programs in the country,” he said. “I think our conference is full of them. From one week to the next, we’re full of great teams in this conference, so you just do your best, line up and play ‘em. But that’s what makes this conference exciting, is you know you’re getting tested against the best.”