No. 8 Stanford vs. Washington St is surprisingly significant
This didn't have the look of a particularly significant game a few weeks ago.
Three straight wins by Washington State have left Saturday night's game against No. 8 Stanford as arguably the Cougars' biggest home game in more than a decade.
Stanford (6-1, 5-0 Pac-12) is the only undefeated team in league play, but it's Washington State (5-2, 3-1) that's right on the heels of the Cardinal. Not Oregon. Not California. It's Washington State that could take control of its destiny in the Pac-12 North race should it manage to knock off the Cardinal.
The last time Washington State was in contention for the conference lead this late in the season was 2003. Aside from rivalry games against Washington, it could be considered the Cougars' most significant home game since 2002 when Washington State went to the Rose Bowl.
The last time the Cougars beat a Top 10 team was No. 5 Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
Stanford coach David Shaw said he has been impressed by how Washington State rebounded from a season-opening loss to FCS Portland State to win five of six games.
''These guys have bounced back from that and become a real, real good football team,'' Shaw said. ''Offensively, their quarterback is playing at a high level. He's got weapons around him. They are protecting him better.''
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk has thrown for 2,885 yards, with 26 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. The Cougars have scored more than 40 points in each of their past three games, including last week's 45-42 win at Arizona.
Coach Mike Leach said Falk, a sophomore, is ahead of other quarterbacks he has coached at this stage.
''He's a very composed guy,'' Leach said. ''He's very focused, very coachable. ... He has a clear mind.''
He also has a slew of targets. Seven different receivers have at least 20 receptions for the Cougars this season in the pass-happy Air Raid offense. They are led by Gabe Marks, who leads the Pac-12 with 57 catches, good for 717 yards and 10 touchdowns. Marks caught a school-record four touchdown passes last weekend against Arizona.
''Week after week, he makes big play after big play,'' Shaw said.
Stanford has won six straight games since an opening loss to Northwestern, scoring more than 40 points in four of them. The Cardinal have won seven straight over the Cougars and may unleash even more of Christian McCaffrey on a defense that remains Washington State's weakness.
McCaffrey is leading the nation with 259.7 all-purpose yards per game, more than 40 yards per game over the next player. McCaffrey needs just 57 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for the season.
McCaffrey is the first Stanford player since 1991 to post 100 yards receiving and rushing in the same game, which happened last week in a win over Washington.
''We've got to do a good job this week to stop the running back,'' Washington State defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao said. ''This is the best offensive line we are going to face in conference.''
Things to watch when Stanford plays at Washington State:
GROUND GAME: Washington State has discovered a ground attack this year behind running backs Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington, who are known collectively as Earth, Wind and Fire. The Cougars have already rushed for 638 yards this season, compared to 478 yards all of last year. The three backs collectively average 6.1 yards per carry.
RED ZONE: One knock on Washington State's Air Raid offense is that it is ineffective in the red zone, where receivers do not have room to spread out. But the Cougars are scoring touchdowns on 73 percent of their trips into the red zone this season, and have scored three more red-zone TDs than opponents.
AERIAL DUEL: It will be strength vs. strength when it comes to the Cougars' passing game against the Cardinal's passing defense. Stanford has allowed just nine passing touchdowns this season, while Washington State averages nearly four per game.
THIRD ACT: Stanford outscores opponents 84-31 in the third quarter, which could be significant Saturday since Washington State has been outscored 51-28 in the third.
QUOTEABLE: Asked if tiny Pullman was abuzz with anticipation over the big game, Leach played right along: ''It's probably on the scale of Woodstock, as far as being a historic event where people gather,'' Leach said. ''A statement for our generation I think.''