The Pac-12 North looks wide open at this point in the season, making Saturday night's clash between the Stanford Cardinal and Washington State Cougars a crucial one for the conference race.
Stanford (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) will be looking to rebound coming off a disappointing 28-10 loss against Arizona State last Friday, in which they threw for a season-high 356 yards but three turnovers doomed them in the end. The Cardinal continue to have issues stopping the run this season, allowing a conference-worst 220 yards per game on the ground, and were gashed by the Sun Devils, who averaged nearly six yards a carry.
The Cougars (3-3, 2-2) are riding a mini two-game win streak after defeating Oregon State last weekend, 31-24, behind a season-high 399 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Jayden de Laura. Limited to just three points in the first half, Washington State's offense exploded with touchdowns on four straight possessions in the second half to close out the game. Defensively, the Cougars limited Oregon State to just 158 passing yards and forced two turnovers.
Stanford at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -2
When Stanford Has the Ball
One of the primary reasons Stanford has enjoyed success in the past under head coach David Shaw is his team's ability to both run the football and stop opposing offenses from doing so. Imagine what Stanford's record would be this season if they could do either one reasonably well. Alas, the Cardinal sit at 3-3 on the year because they sit dead last in the conference, averaging just 98 rushing yards per game. Last year's starter, Austin Jones, has been in and out of the lineup due to injury, which has contributed some, but the offensive line is a shell of what it was in 2020, as they're ranked 100th or lower nationally in many of the advanced offensive line metrics.
Quarterback Tanner McGee has been a pleasant surprise this season, completing 63 percent of his passes for 1,449 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the wheels came off a bit against Arizona State when he threw three interceptions in the loss – his first of the season. Credit to McGee, though, as Stanford has been decimated by injury at the receiver position, now without two starters in Michael Wilson and Brycen Tremayne. Junior Elijah Higgins has stepped into the alpha role, sitting fifth in the conference with 30 receptions and four touchdowns.
When Washington State Has the Ball
As Jayden de Laura goes, so does this Washington State team, and the last two weeks are clear evidence of that with three passing touchdowns against both California and Oregon State. Turnovers continue to plague de Laura with five interceptions in the last four games, but his completion percentage is up this season (63.7), and he has transformed into a leader as a sophomore, according to his head coach. "He's grown the trust of everyone in this program," Nick Rolovich said of de Laura. "He makes everything around him better."
The onus has fallen on de Laura and this passing game, since Washington State has continued to struggle running the football at the start of Pac-12 play. The Cougars have topped 100 yards as a team just once in the last four games, averaging 3.14 yards per carry and ranking 67th in Rush Play Success Rate on the year. As mentioned above, Saturday's matchup could be the cure to Washington State's woes on the ground, facing the worst rush defense in the Pac-12.
Stanford has the best win of the year between the two teams, defeating conference title favorites Oregon two weeks ago, but the Cougars appear to be trending upwards with back-to-back victories and a quarterback playing some of his best ball of the season. Stanford's inability to stop the run should provide some life to a struggling Washington State rushing attack, and Jayden de Laura has been at his best this season playing in front of the home crowd. Cougars pull the minor upset.
Prediction: Washington State 27, Stanford 24
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.