The Stanford-Washington State matchup on Halloween night 2015 ranked among the most exciting games of the season. The Cardinal pushed the upstart Cougars out of the Pac-12 North title race with a fourth-quarter rally, powered in part by a Christian McCaffrey tight-rope run that became a staple of his Heisman highlight reel.
The stakes ahead of this season's meeting are not as high, but this could be a turning point game both for David Shaw's Cardinal and Mike Leach's Cougars.
Since opening with losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State, Washington State's picked up steam. The Cougars won their Pac-12 opener in impressive fashion, beating Oregon by three scores to improve to .500 on the season. More importantly, they sport an unblemished mark in the conference.
Stanford must defend home field and avoid falling to .500 at an early juncture in the schedule to keep its hope of repeating as conference champions alive.
Washington State at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington State's Passing Attack vs. A Wounded Secondary
The absences of cornerback Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder showed last week in Stanford's blowout loss at Washington. Huskies' quarterback Jake Browning picked on the Cardinal secondary, primarily targeting speedster John Ross, completing 71 percent of his pass attempts with three scores.
If a balanced offense like Washington's made hay passing on the Cardinal, an air-raid assault like that of Washington State could spell serious trouble for the dinged-up Stanford secondary.
Cougar quarterback Luke Falk is completing better than 73 percent of his pass attempts for 373.8 yards per game — fourth most in the nation. Falk effectively spreads the ball among a deep and talented wide receiver corps.
2. Stanford's Blocking Woes
Washington rushed just three and four primarily last week, yet Stanford quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst found their pockets evaporating quickly. As a result, All-American Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey's rushing lanes were bottled and the Stanford offense flat-lined.
Though last week marked Stanford's first loss of the campaign, the eight sacks Washington managed were indicative of a problem that first showed up Week 4 in the Cardinal's defeat of UCLA.
UCLA, which had not managed a sack against a Stanford offense in three years, got to the quarterbacks for two sacks two weeks ago, in addition to a third from Deon Hollins that was negated by a penalty elsewhere on the field.
The loss of Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett looms large as the Cardinal seek an offensive identity.
3. Dictating Tempo
Stanford's won three games with combined scores of 35, 37 and 39 points. The Cardinal's one loss totaled 50 points — with 44 of that coming from the opponent, of course.
In contrast, Washington State's cleared 39 points in three of its four contests all on its own, to say nothing of the combined total with its opponents. The Cougars want to force Stanford into a wide-open shootout, which clearly benefits Washington State.
Stanford cannot let Falk exploit the secondary, and that starts with an aggressive push up front from Solomon Thomas and company. After his starring performance against UCLA, Thomas was kept out of the backfield a week ago.
It's remarkable how dramatically one week can change the prognosis of a season. Stanford went from a clear front-runner in the Pac-12 North, to now needing to reassert its presence with Washington State coming in. Conversely, the Cougars went from a team carrying losses to FCS and Group of Five teams to a capable dark horse in the divisional race.
That all happened over the course of 24 hours last weekend.
Stanford's probably better than it showed at Washington, and the Cardinal match up better with the Cougars than they did the Huskies. The big question is which Washington State team is the more real representation of this team: the squad that opened 0-2, or the Cougars that dominated Oregon?
Washington State has an opportunity to make a resounding statement. Much like last year, however, it could be doomed for late-game heartbreak.