Pac-12 North rivals try to keep their bowl aspirations alive
Washington State has gone bowling every season since 2015. Stanford's current bowl streak began with the 2009 campaign, the third season of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. Those streaks are both in danger as the teams meet Saturday in Pullman in what can be reasonably considered a must-win for both.
Stanford (4-5, 3-4 Pac-12) seemed to have righted the ship after quarterback K.J. Costello returned to the lineup. The Cardinal put up 41 points in a bounce-back win over Arizona, then had a bye week to prepare for the first of two straight road trips. That initial road contest took the Cardinal to Boulder to face a badly sputtering Colorado group.
Instead of moving to the right side of .500 for the first time since Week 1, the Cardinal lost on a last-second field goal. They have bowled every season with Shaw as the head coach, but they now need to finish 2-1 against rivals Cal and Notre Dame and a Washington State bunch that no Stanford team has beaten since 2015.
Washington State is in a similar position. The Cougars (4-5, 2-5) suffered a fourth-quarter collapse at Cal that doomed them to a two-touchdown loss. A badly botched penalty created controversy in the days following the loss, but Washington State's second-most anemic offensive performance of the season may have had more to do with that outcome.
Washington State must go 2-1 in a stretch that includes home games against Stanford and Oregon State, and a road trip to Seattle for the Apple Cup.
Stanford at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington State -10.5
When Stanford Has the Ball
The spark Stanford's offense experienced against Arizona may have been a by-product of the Wildcats' struggles more than anything. That would be the indication after the Cardinal scored just 13 points against a Colorado defense that had allowed at least 30 points in every previous game this season.
The lone touchdown came on a 79-yard hook-up between Costello and Simi Fehoko. In a season marred with offensive inefficiency, Fehoko's recent breakout is a definite bright spot.
Stanford ran the ball relatively well against Colorado, averaging 5.1 yards per carry with a three-man rotation of Cameron Scarlett, Austin Jones, and Nathaniel Peat. The issue for Stanford is being able to trust the ground for a full 60 minutes with a battered offensive line. Washington State's defense has struggled stopping the run, allowing more than 193 yards per game and five yards per carry. If the Cardinal cannot attack this particular run defense, it will be another rough day.
When Washington State Has the Ball
It's no secret that Washington State will air it out. Stanford comes in allowing almost eight yards per attempt, and that could be a recipe for a big afternoon from quarterback Anthony Gordon. Even in defeat — including last week at Cal — Gordon has been excellent. But the Golden Bears were able to completely shut down the run game.
While Washington State's air-raid offense isn't exactly the Wishbone, Max Borghi does add some balance. Taking away the run as Cal did last week allowed its excellent secondary to limit the Cougars receivers' space on the field. Gordon averaged nine yards per completion, down 2.6 from his season-long average.
Stanford's secondary has had a trying season. The unit came into 2019 one of the thinnest groups in the conference, even with All-Pac-12 cornerback Paulson Adebo. It's been an up-and-down season for the group.
Washington State is 3-1 at Martin Stadium on the season, and the Cougars scored 63 points in the one loss. These two programs have been pace-setters in the North for the last few years — in Stanford's case, for the past decade — so it seems strange for this mid-November contest to lack divisional implications. Still, the bowl implications carry serious weight.
Washington State's style has given better Stanford teams fits over the last three seasons. This is the worst Cougars defense since 2015, with coordinator Tracy Claeys' midseason departure doing little to effect immediate change. However, the Cardinal offense is nowhere near equipped to capitalize. Washington State should roll and keep alive its hope of a bowl game.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Stanford 23
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.