ndrew Luck and Stanford return to Pullman for the first time since leaving the conference cellar and joining the national elite. When the Card flew into southeastern Washington in 2009, Luck was a redshirt freshman poised to make the first start of his collegiate career. Stanford hadn’t been to a bowl since competing in the 2001 Seattle Bowl and hadn’t won a postseason game since the 1996 Sun Bowl. The previous football season in Palo Alto had produced 5 wins, which was tied for the most the program had mustered since the Seattle Bowl year.
This year will be a bit different. Stanford sits atop the West Coast’s football teams and ranks among the very best in America. Even Washington State has made significant improvement since the 2009 meeting. The Cougars won a total of 5 games in the seasons between 2008 and 2010, but have already won 3 games this season. You won’t see WSU playing in Pasadena in January, but they’re winning and doing so without their starting quarterback, junior Jeff Tuel, who broke his clavicle in Week 1.
Doctors have cleared Tuel to play on Saturday, but he’ll start off watching Marshall Lobbestael lead the Cougar offense. And believe it or not, Washington State’s backup quarterback has been one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 over the last few weeks while filling in for Tuel. Lobbestael completes 65% of his passes, throws more than 3 times as many touchdowns as interceptions and, as an Oak Harbor native, is a born and bred Washingtonian. His 12.13 passing attempts per touchdown put him in the same group as Luck (10.36), USC’s Matt Barkley (13.42), Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler (16.38) and Oregon’s Darron Thomas (8.87) among the Pac-12’s most explosive quarterbacks. All this comes from a player who, when college coaches and recruiting analysts scrambled to sort out the best high school football prospects in the Class of 2007, was labelled a 2-star prospect and was not so much as ranked on the national board of quarterback recruits.
The catch–or possibly opportunity–comes upon a glance at Washington State’s schedule. Lobbestael’s surprisingly efficient performances have come against a line-up of average and mediocre defenses. Against Idaho State, UNLV, Colorado and UCLA, Lobbestael’s completion percentage never dropped below 65% in a single game and he managed a 12:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But against San Diego State, the best team the Cougars have played thus far in 2011, he threw 2 interceptions and completed fewer than half of his passes in a losing effort, despite the 368 passing yards he accumulated by game’s end. Lobbestael does perform significantly better in Pullman than he does on the road, but the cause of the home-away discrepancy isn’t entirely clear: WSU’s 2 home games came against Idaho State and UNLV, which have combined for 3 wins in 2011.
The greatest threat to Lobbestael’s bid to continue his exceptional performances at home comes from the Cougars’ lack of a consistent running game. While WSU ranks in the nation’s top 10 in passing offense, the run game has been thoroughly average. Head coach Paul Wulff has made passing a priority over keeping the ball on the ground, but allowing Stanford’s front seven the luxury of knowing that a pass play is coming and the ability to call aggressive blitz packages on the majority of downs could be disastrous for the surging Cougs. No team on the WSU schedule has brought the level of talent, size and speed that the Stanford defense can apply to the Cougar offensive line on every down and intensify on 3rd down and long yardage situations. Even with star inside linebacker Shayne Skov gone for the year, the Card have resident sack specialist Chase Thomas to send at Loobestael before he can find open receivers.
Luckily for the senior quarterback, a quick release has been one of his strengths since early in his high school days. Unfortunately, Stanford’s defensive schemes will likely be trial by fire too hot for him to handle, and the absence of a strong run game to keep the pass rush honest could lead to the worst performance of Lobbestael’s career. Freshman running back and Berkeley native Rickey Galvin has had productive games for the Cougs–including last week’s 88-yard game against UCLA–but he’s young (Saturday will be the 7th game of his college experience) and very small (5′ 8″, 170 pounds). Galvin has outstanding speed, but he probably won’t see many carries between the tackles, where he stands to get beat up awfully quickly by the physical Stanford push along the defensive front.
On the outside, Lobbestael has a great ally: sophomore wide receiver Marquess Wilson. Wilson has already recorded 3 games with more than 100 yards receiving, averages 128 yards per game and exploded for 236 yards against the Aztecs in Week 3. He’s long, lanky, fast and an NFL scout’s dream. Wilson is just the sort of receiver that should give the Cardinal secondary serious problems if the pass rush doesn’t consistently knock Lobbestael down, and Wilson is almost surely the best pass-catcher that Stanford will face until they travel to LA to see USC and Robert Woods later in the fall. Isiah Barton and Jared Karstetter also present attractive targets for the home team.
Stanford’s offense should have no problem clicking in Martin Stadium. After all, it’s Andrew Luck versus the defense that couldn’t stop UCLA from scoring a 4th-quarter, go-ahead touchdown to win the game last week. Stanford fans will look for the team to get off to a better start than it has for the last several weeks, but whether they do or not should hardly have much effect on the final outcome of the game. Washington State has made commendable improvements up and down the roster and in game execution this season, and they won’t lose as pitifully as Colorado did on the Farm last weekend. But the Cougars are still David, even after last year’s performance in Stanford Stadium, and that rock in Pullman’s slingshot doesn’t look too sharp. This Goliath is also one of the brightest and most strategically complex in the country, so WSU will fall to 3-3 as the Card go marching on toward the most difficult parts of the Pac-12 schedule.
Verdict: Stanford beats Washington State, 38-17
How to Follow the Game
4:30 pm PST, Saturday, October 15
Martin Stadium, Pullman, Washington
Live: Tickets at TiqIq
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)
Social Media: @DailyAxe on Twitter
(Headline image courtesy of Wikipedia)