WSU 49, Stanford 22: Post-game Thoughts
The Cardinal have their back against the wall now. Stanford dropped to 4-6 Saturday because its defense couldn't get off the field and head coach David Shaw and the offense couldn't keep up with Mike Leach's offense at full sail.
This is the fourth straight loss to Washington State -- a streak that before it started would have been considered impossible by Stanford fans. There may not be a more powerful example of how far Stanford has fallen behind in the Pac-12 North than its inability to keep this game competitive in the fourth quarter. Stanford can't beat a bad Washington State team and that has a lot to do with problems on the field and on the sideline (more on that soon).
There's no denying the Cardinal are short-handed. There are players logging a lot of time on the field on both sides of the ball who ideally should be getting a few plays a game, or none at all. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson had a number of bad matchups to try to cover and not much available with which to patch over the holes.
In some ways the game was closer than the scoreboard showed while at the same time it is an accurate reflection of how the game played out.
Once Stanford finally broke through in the second quarter and Shaw put the game on Davis Mills' right arm it seemed the Cardinal could get back into the game. When Stanford was within three points at 25-22 there were a couple minutes of hope that a miracle rally could happen.
But the 83-yard kickoff return nuked the rally and Stanford again trailed by two scores, obviously never to get that close again.
Let's start with the first quarter. Stanford's defense got blitzed for two touchdown drives in the same quarter that Shaw called for two punts on Washington State's side of the field. The defense's struggles were not shocking, or they should not have been given who wasn't available and the issues that have hounded the unit all season. Yet, Shaw's decision making suggested he saw things differently. The first punt was from the Cougars' 34-yard line. In my opinion, those punts showed a lack of awareness of what type of game this was going to be and how very unlikely it was that the defense could consistently stop Washington State, or stop them at all.
The second quarter was much improved in terms of the offense making plays and a lot of that had to do with Mills. Washington State's defense is bad and again Stanford was able to pick on bad DBs. However, Mills and his receivers were making some great plays, too.
Is there any doubt that Mills is a great talent? No. Is there any doubt that there is some great playmaking ability among the young receiver corps? No. Mills' interceptions were bad plays he'd love to have back, but his work with Michael Wilson, Simi Fehoko and Connor Wedington was often fun to watch and encouraging for next season. Fun has been in short supply for most of this season.
The offensive line often gave Mills plenty of time and Washington State had to bring extra pressure for one of its sacks. Wedington had maybe the best offensive game of his career and his catch in the first quarter was tremendous. There are guys who can do good to great things on offense and pretty much all of them are expected back next season.
But a combination of mistakes and interesting coaching decisions stood out as well. Stanford managed to put together a 99-yard TD drive despite consecutive delay of game penalties from inside the four yard line was bizarre to watch. Mills was getting to the line so late that it's tough to put it all on him.
Shaw's time management at the end of the first half ended up not mattering, but in the third quarter it was possible to think that how he handled that final drive was going to be a major problem. He took two timeouts into the locker room when using just one might have given Stanford a chance to kick a field goal. It was remarkable to watch.
The bottomline is that again Stanford was held to the low 20s in scoring and the talent is not matching up with the results, which is something Shaw pointe out as well this week.
On defense it was a lot like watching a man dangle from a cliff's edge and each quarter one of his fingers lost its grip, until finally he plunged to his death. Too gruesome? Well, I'm sure Anderson feels somber about what he watched.
Washington State started the game with the fewest sacks allowed in the Pac-12. It's not as if it was easy what Anderson was asking his guys to do when they dropped seven or eight defenders. Stanford needed to give the defensive backs all the help they could get and the inside linebackers needed to be protected as well. It's not a fast group of playmakers and the middle of the field will look a lot different next season.
Jonathan McGill's interception and Casey Toohill's sack stand out as major plays by the defense, but they were very few and far between.
Anthony Gordon (44-of-60 for 520 yards and 5 TDs) and the Cougars converted 9-of-13 third downs and several of them were advantageous distances for the defense. It was a key stat of the game that Stanford could not get off the field a week after a similar problem in Boulder.
Stanford's youth movement showed up on defense. There was McGill's interception, of course, and also Josh Pakola got his first action and got a good tackle. Tristan Sinclair had a pass deflection that was nearly an interception.