75F Stanford Stadium, Stanford, CA
Amid continuing uncertainty at quarterback, Stanford's ground game and defense have continued to keep it competitive this season.
With Josh Nunes struggling to find consistency under center, the Cardinal may rely heavily on those two elements again as they host a defensively challenged Washington State team Saturday night.
Nunes has failed to put together a steady effort from week to week, and Stanford (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) has gone 2-2 in the last four games. The Cardinal, though, have received strong production from the running game in the past three contests.
Stepfan Taylor powered Stanford on the ground Saturday, running for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown as the Cardinal rolled up 252 rushing yards in a 21-3 victory over California in the Big Game. Stanford has averaged 218.7 yards on the ground the last three weeks.
That's due mostly to Taylor, who's averaging 120.9 rushing yards on the year and has run for 433 in the past three contests.
Coach David Shaw's team has supplemented its run-oriented approach with a strong performance on the other side of the ball. Aside from a 54-48 win over Arizona on Oct. 6, the Cardinal haven't given up more than 20 points and are allowing 18.9 per game.
Stanford held the Golden Bears to three yards rushing and leads the conference with 77.0 yards allowed per game on the ground.
"This is a blueprint game," Shaw said. "This is what we want to do."
The Cardinal may be able to do it again against Washington State (2-5, 0-4), which is allowing 175.1 rushing yards a contest. Taylor ran for 142 yards and two scores in a 38-28 win over the Cougars on Oct. 23, 2010, and had 100 yards on 17 carries as Stanford beat Washington State 44-14 last Oct. 15.
"Andrew Luck is a great quarterback, but at the same time, we're looking at Taylor," Cougars safety Deone Bucannon said Monday. "He's been carrying Stanford. His balance is incredible. He's a strong running back - the best we're going to go up against this year."
The Cardinal have won the last four meetings by a margin of 179-55, and even Nunes' problems may not keep Stanford from extending that run. The senior went 16 of 31 for 214 yards and a touchdown versus the Bears, but fumbled and also threw an interception late in the fourth quarter to prevent the Cardinal from posting an even more lopsided victory.
Nunes has posted ratings of 81.8 and 74.0 in two of the last four games, a span that has seen backup Kevin Hogan's role expand - especially in the running game.
"It's new. I'm adjusting to it and getting more and more comfortable with the certain packages," Hogan said. "I ran a little bit in high school, so it's good that I had a little bit of a base. But I'm just going to keep working at it every week, and if it gets called, just do my best with it."
Washington State, coming off a bye, fell 31-17 to Cal on Oct. 13 for its fourth straight loss. The Cougars, allowing 30.4 points per game, have dropped 18 in a row against Top 25 opponents.
The Cougars did turn in another solid performance offensively, gaining more than 400 yards for the fourth time in five games as Jeff Tuel threw for 320 yards and two scores.
"I thought we did some good things," coach Mike Leach said. "We took a step forward."
Washington State, though, gave up 507 yards - 318 on the ground - and rushed for only 36.
While this matchup appears to be easy one for Stanford, it may prove critical in its battle to win the North Division. The Cardinal follow up this game by taking on 1-6 Colorado next week in a soft portion of schedule, then face Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA in a brutal closing stretch.
Stanford has won 13 in a row against unranked opponents at home.