No. 14 Washington State is riding high after last week’s win over Oregon in Pullman, Wash., but now the Cougars must brace for a difficult challenge at the turn toward November with a game at No. 24 Stanford on Saturday.
Las Vegas believes the Cougars (6-1, 3-1) have a chance as they go on the road for the fourth time this season to play the Cardinal (5-2, 3-1). Stanford opened as a 4 1/2-point favorite, but the line was down to three points headed into Tuesday.
Washington State is looking to avoid a same type of collapse as the last few seasons. Last year, the Cougars went 3-4 down the stretch after starting 6-0. In 2016, they ended the season with three straight losses after putting together an eight-game winning streak.
“Everybody we have left (on the schedule) is a really tough team,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Most of them have been ranked at some point, for what that’s worth. Yeah, they’re all good and they can all come up and get you. And they’re all going to try.”
Washington State is coming off a 34-20 win over then-No. 12 Oregon at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., extending its home winning streak to 11 games. Stanford took a big lead early and hung on late to beat Arizona State 20-13 last Thursday night in Tempe, Ariz.
The victory, behind K.J. Costello’s 231 passing yards, snapped a two-game losing streak for the Cardinal.
“We could have played better, obviously, but for us, this is the way we needed to win this football game,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “What we’ve done the last couple games, coming up short, not giving ourselves a chance, we gave ourselves a chance today.”
Stanford’s defense, traditionally strong across the board, has proved to be vulnerable against the pass this season. The Cougars lead the nation in passing with 400.7 yards per game behind senior graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew II.
Minshew’s 392.1 passing yards per game also leads the nation. He has completed 69.8 percent of his passes (254 of 364) with 23 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Among Pac-12 teams, only Oregon State ranks lower than Stanford in passing yards per game allowed (252.1), although the Cardinal have only conceded seven passing touchdowns.
Stanford has been one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the Pac-12 at 24.9 points per game, which ranks only ahead of UCLA. Injured running back Bryce Love, a one-time Heisman Trophy candidate, has only 348 yards in five games.
Love returned to play against Arizona State after missing the game against Utah with a left ankle injury. He showed promise on some of his runs before Shaw took him out in the second half after gaining 21 yards on 11 carries.
“Once he got warm, got loose, there were a couple of 4-, 5-yard runs that were really impressive,” Shaw said. “His explosiveness in short areas was impressive.”
Despite the lack of production by Stanford’s offense, which is related to Love’s injury problems, the Cardinal can make plays behind Costello.
He is much more developed than the player the Cougars saw in Pullman last season. He anks third in the Pac-12 behind Minshew and Oregon’s Justin Herbert with 263.1 yards per game and 13 touchdowns.
His favorite target is JJ Arcega-Whiteside, whose size at 6 feet 3, 225 pounds makes him dangerous in the red zone. He has received nine of Costello’s 13 touchdowns this season.
Leach is confident his team can handle the challenge of winning in Palo Alto. The Cougars achieved that feat two years ago there by a 42-16 score as an unranked team against the No. 16 Cardinal. Leach mentioned Monday that this is one of his most coachable teams in his 17 years as a head coach.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” Leach said. “Everybody’s pulling in the same direction.”
On Senior Day last season at Washington State, the Cougars held Love to his lowest rushing total of the season, becoming the only team to keep him under 100 yards all year. Love rushed 16 times for 69 yards and a touchdown.
Washington State constantly denied Stanford’s passing attack, holding Costello to 9-of-20 passing for 105 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Washington State’s Luke Falk capped his final game at Martin Stadium with an inspired 11-play, 95-yard touchdown drive, completing throws to four receivers and hitting Jamire Calvin for an 11-yard touchdown that gave the Cougars a 24-21 lead.
Frankie Luvu’s interception with 15 seconds to go sealed the win for Washington State.