Washington State really struggled with Stanford’s defensive line in the 24-17 defeat last season in Palo Alto, all the way from the first drive to the last. Then-starting quarterback Jeff Tuel sat on his back literally for the entire first half and then after rallying the Cougs to within 9 yards of a tie, ended up back on the turf on back to back plays as the time ran out on the upset bid. The final tally was ten… TEN sacks in the game!
This year figures to be different for a variety of reasons and this could be a key to the Cougs upsetting the Card in this season’s showdown.
The Cougs have just generally been better so far this season. Think about this, through four games, the Cougs have allowed just 7 sacks of their quarterback, which averages out to 1.75 sacks per game! To this point it’s still only good for 10th best in the Pac, but in 2012 a national leading 57 was the overall damage, averaging out to over 5 per game. The Cougs are on pace to give up exactly half of that, which is just a massive upgrade.
But even half of Stanford’s total (5) from that nightmare in Cali won’t be an allowable number on Saturday. So who do the Cougs need to focus on to keep this year’s quarterback Connor Halliday standing in the pocket?
Stanford hasn’t been as explosive defensively this season and the always dangerous Chase Thomas is gone but the Cardinal and White brings just as much speed to the field this season with returners AJ Tarpley, Shane Skov and James Vaughters. The best starting point though, is finding the white jersey and #93 of outside linebacker Trent Murphy, probably the most athletic linebacker Stanford has to offer at 6’6″, 255 lbs. He is their most effective blitzer and has 2 sacks on a young three-game season thus far. He’s also proven from the 10 he racked up in 2012, which led the team and is the best linebacker the Cougs will see all season.
Murphy will come from different angles and on occasion walk up on the line as an end but to keep him from really causing havoc it’ll be important that the Cougs route him around the big tackles and don’t allow penetration from him right up the gut on any stunts. Halliday has really struggled with the up-the-middle pressure as he tends to panic and as we saw against USC just blindly throw in the general direction of his receivers. With Murphy’s size, up-the-middle pressure will just kill the Cougar offense and we saw that in Palo Alto last season.
Murphy isn’t the only Stanford sack-man though, and Cardinal coach David Shaw prefers to play more of a base defense if he can anyway. DL Josh Mauro has 2 sacks as well, while DL Ben Gardner has 1.5 (and tallied 7.5 in 2012 which tied for second behind Murphy). Bottom line, the Card can really create a lot of pressure from both levels but actually got to the Cougs (and a lot of others) last season without really sending a lot of pressure from their backers.
I would expect them to do a bit more blitzing on Saturday though, here’s why.
The addition of RT Rico Forbes and LG Joe Dahl to the lineup, as well as the steady improvement of RG John Fullington and LT Gunnar Ecklund have been really solid. The leadership and communication of experienced C Elliot Bosch have the Cougs in good position on most plays to deal with the opponents’ front-3 or 4. According to the stats thus far, WSU is far more prepared to deal with the defensive line of Stanford, but keep in mind that the Stanford front-7 is probably on par with the Auburn and USC fronts (though maybe just slightly less athletic).
Those two teams tallied 6 of the 7 sacks allowed by the Cougs this season (including 4 by the Trojans and 2 more intentional grounding penalties vs the Tigers), so this will be a major challenge. Match that up with the fact the Cougs haven’t seen a good front in three weeks and the perfect storm is created. You could continue to add that 11 of the 12 Stanford starters (including safety Ed Reynolds who won’t be in for the first half against WSU due to suspension (pending review)) are either juniors or seniors. That’s a far cry from the other two lines who had a lot of athletic ability but also a lot of youth to overcome.
Hopefully the Cougs can hold Stanford out of the pocket while Connor gets rid of the football in a timely fashion. If not, pressure from the white jerseys could really impact this game.