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Stanford Cardinal vs. Washington State Cougars Preview and Prediction

Luke Falk

Luke Falk

Plenty is on the line for both Stanford and Washington State when the two Top-25 teams clash in Pullman this weekend.

Stanford Cardinal RB Bryce Love

Once again, the No. 18 Cardinal (6-2, 5-1 Pac-12) have claimed the driver's seat in thePac-12 North. Stanford has won five straight after suffering back-to-back losses against USC and San Diego State. Wins in the next two weeks over the Cougars and Washington would clinch yet another divisional crown for the Cardinal.

Washington State, on the other hand, has no room for error at this point. A loss to Stanford would virtually eliminate the No. 25 Cougars (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) from the divisional title race ahead of remaining games against Utah and their Apple Cup rival Washington. The Cardinal also would hold a valuable tiebreaker over Washington State.

Stanford holds a 40-26-1 lead in the the all-time series with Washington State. The Cougars demolished the Cardinal 42-16 a year ago to snap an eight-game losing streak in the series.

Stanford at Washington State

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Washington State – 2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Will Bryce Love return?

Without Love (above, right), Stanford's offense has no engine. He demonstrated as much when he sat out with an ankle injury during the team's 15-14 win over Oregon State last week.

Moving the ball proved to be a chore without Love in the backfield. Cardinal running backs Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights combined for 82 yards on 22 carries in his absence. It marked a single-game season low on the ground for Stanford.

One reason why Love is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate is his ability to take over a game. He leads the nation in rushing yards (1,387), rushing yards per game (198.1) and rushing yards per carry (10.27). He has accounted for one-third of Stanford's offensive touchdowns this season.

Cardinal head coach David Shaw told reporters during Tuesday's Pac-12 teleconference that Love would be a game-time decision on Saturday. If the junior can't go, it could seriously cripple Stanford's ability to claim a valuable road victory.

2. Can Luke Falk bounce back?

There isn't a quarterback controversy at Washington State, but Cougars head coach Mike Leach turned more than a few heads when he benched Falk in a 58-37 loss to Arizona last weekend.

Falk struggled to move the offense before being replaced by Tyler Hilinski late in the second quarter. Falk guided Washington State on seven drives; five ended in punts and only one ended in a touchdown. He totaled just 93 yards and a TD pass on 13-of-23 passing before his day came to an end.

Hilinski moved the offense better over the remainder of the game, but he ended up being too turnover prone. He threw for for 509 yards and a pair of touchdowns while completing 45-of-61 pass attempts, but he also threw four interceptions that opened the door for the Wildcats to pull away behind the legs of Khalil Tate.

History says that Falk can bounce back. Through nine games this season, he has been a model of consistent excellence much of the time. The senior has completed 68 percent of his passes, while totaling 2,576 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Falk remains the active NCAA leader in passing yards (13,469) and touchdowns (112). He needs to throw for only 132 yards on Saturday to break Sean Mannion's Pac-12 record for career passing yards.

3. Storm clouds ahead for both defenses

Stifling defense has been as responsible for Washington State's success this season as its usual brand of explosive offense. The Cougars took a major step backward on defense, however, against Arizona.

A week after shutting out Colorado, Washington State gave up a season-high 328 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate, along with running backs J.J. Taylor and Zach Green, found more holes in the line than in a slice of Swiss cheese and made the Cougars pay for it. If Love can go, it could be another long day for the front seven.

Stanford could have a tougher time than anticipated stopping Falk from shredding its pass defense. The Cardinal suffered a major blow in losing senior defensive back Alijah Holder to a season-ending leg injury against Oregon State. Holder totaled 26 tackles, two tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and an interception in eight games this year.

Final Analysis

Washington State has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team on both sides of the ball over the last few games. The Cougars usually don't suffer two down games in a row, especially when returning to Pullman after a loss. Stanford is a bit of wild card. If Bryce Love is healthy enough to play, he is a game-changer who can will the Cardinal to victory almost by himself. His questionable status means that Stanford could have its hands full on the road against a Cougars team looking to stay alive in the Pac-12 North title chase.

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Prediction: Washington State 24, Stanford 20

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.