Most everyone looking at Saturday afternoon's matchup between Stanford and Washington State had it pegged the same way I did: a big win for the Cardinal. It certainly looked like it was heading that way early on when the Stanford defense took the field against Jeff Tuel and Coach Mike Leach's Cougar offense.
This was Tuel's first start since early September, and Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, and Henry Anderson wasted little time in welcoming him back to the Pac-12. After an initial first down, those four defenders combined for three straight tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense pushed the Cougars back to their original line of scrimmage and forced the punt.
The offense took over at their own 42 and did what was expected. The running game looked solid (Anthony Wilkerson broke off a 17-yard gain, but curiously didn't touch the ball again), but when the drive stalled at the Washington State 25, Jordan Williamson knocked it through the uprights from 42 yards out for a 3-0 Stanford lead.
The score stayed right there into the second quarter, and suddenly what should've been a relaxing afternoon on the Farm had turned sticky. Playing before a crowd thinned by any number of factors (lackluster opponent, hometown Giants in the World Series, and hundreds of students who may or may not have been shanghaied to Nevada to knock on doors for the Obama campaign), the Stanford squad lacked energy and urgency.
After consecutive uninspired drives by the Cardinal, Jeff Tuel took the field a minute and a half into the second quarter and went to work from his own 12. The slow and steady drive looked ready to stall when the Cougars found themselves in a 3rd and 12 hole just a yard across midfield. I haven't the time or energy to research the specifics of this, but it feels like the Stanford defense has had trouble in situations like this. In this particular situation, Tuel connected with Dominique Williams for a 43-yard gain to the Stanford 6. After a late hit penalty on Trent Murphy pushed the Cougars half way home, Tuel found Williams again for a touchdown, and Stanford was suddenly trailing a team which hadn't won a single game in Pac-12 play.
In need of a spark, the Stanford offense found one on their next possession. On 2nd and 5 from his own 30, Nunes came to the line of scrimmage and noticed that no one was covering wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson. Nunes audibled to the right play, dropped the ball into JRP's lap, and the resulting 70-yard touchdown gave the lead back to the Cardinal at 10-7.
But the Cougars would not slink away. Two possessions later Tuel led his team on a ten-play drive that resulted in a field goal on the final play of the half, and the two teams went into halftime tied 10-10.
To say that the first half was disturbing would be an understatement. Washington State had almost completely abandoned the run, and Tuel's statistics reflected the tilt of their offense. He was 27 for 33 for 253 yards, and all those completions kept the clock running. The Cougars enjoyed an absolutely obscene time of possession advantage, holding the ball for 21:03 to Stanford's 8:57. Stanford's offense, meanwhile, only managed 112 total yards, 70 of those on Patterson's gift-wrapped touchdown. The score was 10-10, but nothing else was even.
Stanford opened the third quarter with the type of drive we'd like to see from them more often. Running the ball ten times out of thirteen plays, the offense seemed to be gathering momentum. There was even some creativity on display, as the Kevin Hogan Package came in on a key 3rd and 2 from the Washington State 7. Hogan kept the ball on the read option to earn the first down and set up a 1st and goal at the 4. Three plays later the Package was back on the field for 3rd and goal, but this time Hogan handed the ball to Ryan Hewitt for the touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
The Stanford defense stood strong over the next two Washington State possessions, forcing punts both times, and then an interesting thing happened when the Stanford offense took the field with just under a minute to play in the third quarter. The Hogan Package was back in, and not just for one play. Hogan took five consecutive snaps, moving the ball 26 yards before taking a seven-yard loss on a sack. Nunes came in at that point, but the drive stalled two plays later. Could Shaw be following my advice and gradually switching quarterbacks? Only time will tell.
The Cougars started their next possession on their own 13, and it didn't take long for the Stanford defense to take control of the game. Safety Ed Reynolds stepped in front of a Tuel pass on third down, picked it off on the 25, and streaked into the end zone untouched for his second pick six (and fourth interception) of the year. Stanford led 24-10, and it looked like it might be time to exhale, finally.
But it wasn't.
Tuel dominated the Cougars' next possession, accounting for all 75 yards on their 12-play touchdown drive as Washington State answered the Reynolds score and pulled back within seven at 24-17.
Despite gaining two first downs, the Stanford offense was only able to burn 2:52 off the clock before punting for the sixth time on the day, and Tuel came back out on the field with 3:37 to play. Tuel worked efficiently, steadily moving his team downfield until he finally faced a 4th and 21 at the Stanford 34. Part of the problem the Stanford defense has in these 3rd- or 4th-and-long situations is that defensive coordinator Derek Mason plays it too safe. He likes to rush only three while dropping all four linebackers into coverage, giving the opposing quarterback time to find an open receiver. Mason played it that way here, and Tuel found Bobby Ratliff deep over the middle for a 25-yard gain, setting up the Cougars with 1st and goal from the 9.
From there the Cardinal defense took over. Defensive back Usua Amanam streaked in on a blitz, forcing Tuel into an intentional grounding penalty that included a mandated ten-second clock run-off. Defensive end Henry Anderson followed that with a sack on the next play, and the clock expired.
It was a fitting way for the game to end. The Stanford defense racked up a school-record ten sacks on the day, helping them hold the Cougars to -16 yards rushing. (Tuel scrambled for 52 yards, but lost 64 on those ten sacks.) The Washington State running backs were a complete nonfactor. The Cougars only called six true running plays, with Marcus Mason rushing four times for -1, and Carl Winston running twice for -3. Over the past two games, that makes for a total of -13 rushing yards allowed, pushing the Cardinal to 4th in the nation against the run.
But of course, that's not the entire story. Once again the offense was mediocre, which is all the more disappointing considering the expectations entering the game. Facing the 11th-best rushing defense in a twelve-team conference, Stanford was only able to gain 120 yards on 37 attempts for a paltry 3.2 yards per carry. Stepfan Taylor, one of the best running backs in Stanford history, had a disappointing day with just 58 yards on 21 carries.
And then there's the quarterback situation, a discussion which probably warrants another thousand words all to itself.
At the end of the day, however, Stanford had a 24-17 win. And a win is a win.
[Photo Credit: Marcio José Sanchez/AP Photo]