Washington State is definitely a different team now than it was during the season opener when it fell to FCS squad Portland State, 24-17.
But there are a few pieces that were crucial in that game, and they will still be crucial for Stanford this weekend when the Cardinal travel to Pullman.
Let Portland State coach Bruce Barnum play teacher.
1. Stanford needs to weather the storm.
Big plays (specifically, big pass plays) can happen quickly when playing Washington State. The Cougars have had 48 plays of 20 or more yards already this season (43 through the air).
And on top of those big pass plays, the Cougars have been able to keep that momentum going and move the chains. They’re third in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions (44 percent), and when you factor in that they’ve gone for it on fourth down 23 times, and converted 15 times, it’s more like they’re converting 59 percent of their third-down attempts.
Barnum said he told his team that Washington State quarterback Luke Falk would be able to get his 12- or 15-yard passing conversion every so often, but they needed to make sure those plays didn’t turn into 70- or 80-yard bombs.
“Once they caught it we wanted to just strike the hell out of them once they caught the football,” Barnum said. “We knew he was going to get his.”
And facing a depleted Stanford defensive line that’s averaging just 1.4 sacks per game, Falk could have ample time in the pocket to decide which receiver will get a 20-plus-yard gain rather than just trying to get the ball out.
2. The turnover battle will be huge.
The Cougars’ two turnovers were huge for the Vikings. “We probably won that game because of turnovers,” Barnum said.
Portland State scored its go-ahead touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Kyrin Priester fumbled a punt return and the Vikings recovered at the Washington State 11-yard line. Portland State scored off an eight-yard run four plays later.
The Vikings also sealed the game by picking off quarterback Peyton Bender with 42 seconds remaining.
This season, Stanford has only turned the ball over six times (four interceptions, two fumbles). But the Cardinal have only forced opponents into five turnovers.
With weather possibly coming into play, it’ll be crucial for both teams to try to take care of the ball. But whichever team can capitalize on its opponent’s mistakes will put itself in a very good position.
3. Special teams could be the biggest difference.
Portland State’s special teams recovered that fumble at the start of the fourth quarter, but they also blocked a field goal attempt earlier in the game.
On top of that, Barnum also said he was happy with his special teams because of the long fields the Vikings consistently gave the Cougars. After kicks, Washington State was typically 77 yards from the end zone, which gave Barnum’s defense a chance, he thought.
Stanford has done a good job of giving its opponents a long field this season. The Cardinal rank third in the Pac-12 in opponent field position after kickoffs (75.4 yards from the end zone).
Obviously, Washington State is a different team in Game 8 than it was in Game 1, but the lessons learned by Barnum and the Vikings could be instrumental for the Cardinal in Pullman.