The electricity of College GameDay's first-ever visit to Pullman, coupled with a win over Oregon, elevated Washington State to the center of the Pac-12 championship conversation. The Cougars control their own destiny in the North division and just might be in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.
A team that has exceeded expectations all season long — Washington State was picked to finish fifth in the North in the preseason media poll — must do so again. The Cougars arrive in Stanford for a marquee matchup, with the winner taking control of its fate in the divisional race. The Cardinal rebounded from back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Utah last week with a 20-13 victory at Arizona State.
Washington State at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Stanford's running back rotation
2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love played one of his least effective games of last season in last year's 24-21 loss at Washington State, totaling 69 yards rushing while playing on a bad ankle. Ankle issues continue to plague Love this season, and his health has impacted the Cardinal. Notre Dame went on a decisive tear in the fourth quarter when Love came out of that game, and Utah bullied a Love-less Cardinal a week later.
Love returned to the lineup last week vs. Arizona State, but in an interesting twist, he was used close to equally with Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights. His availability for this week is an open question; David Shaw told reporters on Tuesday that Love was day-to-day.
In the meantime, Scarlett's modest breakthrough a week ago — he totaled 54 yards on just nine carries with a touchdown — does offer some potential relief. Speights was ineffective in the run game but caught two passes for 25 yards. Establishing enough of a consistent run threat to keep coordinator Tracy Claeys' defense from teeing off on quarterback K.J. Costello is vital, as that was the area in which both Notre Dame and Utah flourished.
In the same vein, Claeys has maintained the aggressive style Alex Grinch used at Washington State to turn the Cougars into pass-rushing terrors, albeit with a literal twist — that is, the twists and motions up front Washington State uses to confuse offenses and create blocking mismatches. And that's one area in which Love's presence (or absence) makes a difference. Love is one of the best blocking running backs in college football.
2. Can Gardner Minshew break Stanford's defense?
Stanford has cultivated a reputation for employing some of the most dominant defenses in the nation, to say nothing of the Pac-12. This season, the Cardinal have been less dominant, and more bend-don't-break. To wit, Stanford ranks in the median for rushing defenses, both in terms of yards allowed per game and per carry, but has given up just eight rushing touchdowns.
Its play against the pass reveals an even more stark contrast. Stanford ranks No. 98 in passing yards allowed per game — 252.1 — but is tied with noteworthy names like LSU, Auburn, Wisconsin and, yes, Washington State in allowing only seven passing touchdowns. And four of those came in one game against Notre Dame.
There's no question that Washington State is going to move the ball through the air Saturday. Quarterback Gardner Minshew leads the nation in passing yards per game at 392.1, spreading the ball among a diverse group of pass catchers; seven different Cougars have at least 21 receptions on the year. How many of those yards translate into points will be crucial, however.
Stanford has intercepted as many passes as it has let go for touchdowns. Veteran DB Alijah Holder has been predictably solid this season, but the emergence of Paulson Adebo as a lock-down corner has been a revelation for the Cardinal defense. If Washington State's receivers can win one-on-one matchups, and Minshew make the deliveries without turnovers, the Cougars will control the game.
What's more, a big outing from Minshew after throwing four touchdowns in the high-profile defeat of Oregon should thrust the quarterback into the Heisman conversation.
3. Four full quarters
Maintaining a high level through four quarters has been an issue for both Stanford and Washington State. The Cardinal were trailing Notre Dame by a single score but unraveled in the fourth. Stanford dominated Arizona State in the middle quarters a week ago but became stagnant on offense down the stretch, which allowed Arizona State a final drive with a shot at forcing overtime.
In its one loss this season, at USC, Washington State built a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter. The Cougars were held out of the end zone the rest of the way as USC climbed back to win. Perhaps Washington State has rebounded from that incident; the Cougars held Oregon at bay a week ago with a late score. Still, Washington State blew the doors off the Ducks through the first half before allowing Oregon to cut a four-touchdown halftime deficit to a single possession in the fourth quarter.
Washington State carries a two-game winning streak over Stanford into this year's matchup and has plenty of momentum going into Saturday. It's difficult to call this a letdown game; Stanford is ranked in the Top 25 and has been a consistent benchmark for Pac-12 excellence coming up on a decade. The Cardinal are Vegas favorites as of Wednesday. Still, there was so much emotion in Washington State's win last week over Oregon that the Cougars could be understandably drained this week.
Much depends on the ability of Stanford's offense to mount consistent drives on a feisty Washington State defense. When the run game is effective, the field opens for K.J. Costello to distribute passes among a talented group of targets. The Cardinal played some beautiful offensive football in the third quarter at Arizona State. The offense that took the field in the fourth quarter a week ago was anything but.
When Stanford's consistent, it looks like a championship contender.