Home field, weather factors as Wash. St. hosts Stanford (Nov 04, 2017)
The most important factor in Saturday's pivotal Pac-12 North game between No. 18 Stanford and No. 25 Washington State may be the site.
The game will be played in Pullman, Wash., and the two teams' results this season suggest that is quite significant.
Certainly there are other issues.
Stanford (6-2, 5-1 Pac-12) hopes running back Bryce Love, who leads the nation in rushing at 198.1 yards per game, will be able to play Saturday, because the Cardinal were feeble on offense without him in their 15-14 win over Oregon State last week. As of Thursday night, Love's status was still up in the air.
But there was news about the Stanford offense: Redshirt freshman K.J. Costello will start at quarterback, replacing Keller Chryst. Costello started one game earlier this season -- a win over Arizona State when Chryst was injured.
Costello won the job this week in practice, coach David Shaw said. Chryst has struggled recently.
Meanwhile, the Cougars (7-2, 4-2) need a better game out of quarterback Luke Falk, who was pulled in the first half of Saturday's 58-37 loss at Arizona.
But the venue might trump all that.
Stanford is 3-0 at home, winning all three by double-digit margins. The Cardinal are 2-2 on the road, including the lackluster, one-point victory at Oregon State, which has yet to beat an FBS team this season.
Washington State is 6-0 at home, including wins over USC and Boise State, but just 1-2 on the road. The two losses have come by a combined margin of 55 points against teams that were unranked at the time.
Add the fact that Saturday afternoon's forecast for Washington State's final home game of the season includes freezing temperatures and snow and you have an environment that matters.
Stanford and Washington State are battling Washington for the Pac-12 North title. Stanford hosts Washington on Friday, Nov. 10, and could assure itself a berth in the conference championship game by beating both Washington schools. The Cougars play at Washington on Nov. 25 and would clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game by winning their final three games.
But Stanford and Washington State must play better than they did this past week to stay in title contention.
One word describes the Cardinal's win over Oregon State: lucky. A late Oregon State fumble allowed the Cardinal to score the winning touchdown with 20 seconds left.
Coach David Shaw admitted his team has not played well on the road, and acknowledged that the level of play he saw at Oregon State would not suffice against Washington State.
"If we don't play well, they will run us out of the house," he said.
The key may be Love, who sat out the Oregon State game with an ankle injury.
The Cardinal still lead the nation in yards per rushing attempt (7.25), but that is mainly because Love averages 10.27 yards per carry. Without him, Stanford rushed for a season-low 81 yards against an Oregon State defense that ranked 100th in the country.
"He really brings something that no one else can," said Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. "He's going to win the Heisman this year. He should, no questions asked. So not having that player in there we're not at our 100 percent best. He was missed, and we're very thankful we're going to get him back soon."
Without Love's running threat, Chryst struggled, passing for just 141 yards and 4.3 yards per attempt.
If Love does play, he should have some success. Arizona rolled up 310 rushing yards against Washington State in the Wildcats' victory. The other significant occurrence in that game was that Falk, who is approaching Pac-12 records for career passing yardage and career touchdown passes, was benched.
Tyler Hilinski replaced him in the second quarter and got the Cougars back in the game, although his four interceptions ruined the effort.
The Cougars rolled up 646 yards, including 602 through the air, and amassed 32 first downs to just 13 for big-play Arizona, but Washington State still lost by three touchdowns.
"I thought we played really hard, but I thought we played really dumb," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "We just played outright dumb."
Leach liked the way Hilinski pushed the ball downfield, but said he was bit "reckless."
"Falk tries to way overanalyze everything to the point where that can be counterproductive," Leach said of his decision to bench him, "so if I could slice the two of them in half and mold them into one guy, we probably would have been in a pretty good situation."
Leach was unequivocal when asked Tuesday whether Falk would start on Saturday.
"Yes," Leach said.
Falk threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns in the Cougars' 42-16 victory at Stanford last season.
Like Shaw, Leach knows his team needs to improve to have success this week.
"We can play better than this," he said. "We still control our own destiny."