This week, Stanford lines up against Washington State after the Cougars stunned the Ducks in a 51-33 upset blowout. Now the Cardinal play host, as they try to avoid dropping two games to Washington teams. After doing my homework in the film room, here are the advantages for Washington State and Stanford going into Saturday.
I was skeptical of Luke Falk heading into the season, but after four games he has looked very good, throwing for 1,495 yards and 12 touchdowns. While he has been dependable, a lot of the credit goes to the coaching and scheme that he is in. Head coach for the Cougars Mike Leach has an offensive system that is very pass heavy but recently has begun running the ball more frequently.
They look to go horizontal very early on in games, lots of wide receiver screens and short out routes in the flat. Then as cornerbacks and safeties grow more comfortable and cheat up they run simple, deep, go routes and seam routes to gouge the defense with the long ball. The biggest thing this does is really simplify the game and make the reads easy for the quarterback. This also offers up easy throws and helps get the quarterback in a groove quickly and early on by giving him lots of completions to start games.
While there are some throws he does force, for the most part he has a lot of simple reads because of how the offense is set up. The other important factor is the dedication to the running game, as they average 161.3 rushing yards a game. If you let this team establish the run along with the short passing game early they will burn you deep because defensive backs and linebackers are all cheating up.
This is especially dangerous for Stanford because they will be without Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks yet again. If they frustrate Alameen Murphy and Terrance Alexander early in this one, they will burn Stanford deep.
The most important thing, and I can not stress this enough, is getting Christian McCaffrey and Michael Rector out in space as much as possible. This team’s defense struggles heavily making tackles, especially in the open field. Screens and rub routes will be Stanford’s best friends. The Cardinal just need to get back to offensive creativity, simply handing off to McCaffrey and assuming Rector came to the game as a formality will not be acceptable. If they can feed these players in a bunch of different ways they will have a shot at getting the ball moving early.
On defense the Cardinal will have Murphy and Alexander at corner again instead of Holder and Meeks. It should also be noted that Meeks picked off Falk twice last year just in case you already were not properly upset about his absence. With these new cornerbacks in, that means that the bulk of the defensive load is on Solomon Thomas, Harrison Phillips and Peter Kalambayi. These premier pass rushers have to step up and get after the quarterback and shut down the run.
Now it will not be easy, as mentioned earlier this offense lives on short passes to set up the few deep strikes. That means the ball is usually getting out quick to the sidelines. Therefore the first approach is getting the running game to stall early. Again, Washington State averages 161.3 yards a game and they use that to let them stick to the short passes to set up the long ball.
If they can stifle the running game, this will force the passing game into more creativity, which means longer routes when the running back is stuffed to set up long second and third down situations. It will not shut down the passing attack as Falk is a good quarterback, but the longer he has to hold the ball the better shot Stanford’s front seven has at getting to him. This will also really help out the corners because instead of trying to run down hill on the snap in anticipation of a screen, they can play on their heels, as a corner should, and read the play.
One of the most egregious problems in Friday’s game against the Huskies, was how the cornerbacks were set up for failure all game. Shaw is much smarter then I am, but the reason for having inexperienced corners starting out in man press coverage only to bail out immediately at the snap I will never understand. When this happens not only can the corner only read the quarterback, not the quarterback and wide receiver, but this also means their back is to the receiver for around seven yards. If their bailout is slightly late this keeps them from seeing any sideline route. Hopefully against Washington State the corners play back in a seven yards soft zone. This will help them read the play and let things unfold in front of them. Then trust the corner to make the tackle in space. Keeping yards after the catch under control will be huge in this game.
This is a game Stanford can win and it all comes down to how difficult they make it for themselves. If they get their playmakers the ball, along with finding ways to get space offensively and play disciplined defense they can rebound from the Washington game. But if they come in hungover from the loss, Falk will dice up this offense and Stanford will drop two in a row.