Crimson and Cardinal clash


Wide receiver Dom Williams carries the ball against Portland State University at Martin Stadium, Sept. 13, 2014. The Cougars won the game 59-21.

William Cheshier | Evergreen football reporter

The Cougars are eager to get back on track against Stanford after their homecoming loss to California last Saturday.

WSU (2-4, 1-2) will travel to Palo Alto, California to take on the No. 25 Stanford Cardinal (3-2, 1-1) tonight.

The Cougars are coming off a 60-59 home loss to the California Golden Bears (4-1,2-1). Redshirt senior quarterback Connor Halliday led the team down to the one-yard line in what looked to be the game-winning drive, but redshirt junior kicker Quentin Breshears was unable to capitalize, missing a 19-yard field goal that would have given WSU the lead with less than 15 seconds to play.

Stanford played at Notre Dame last Saturday and suffered a 17-14 loss. The Cardinal have struggled on offense as of late, but boast the best defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) allowing a mere 8.6 points a game.

Here are the keys to the game:

WSU Offensive Line vs. Stanford Defensive Line

The Cardinal arguably has the best defensive line in all of college football. They have the unique ability to only rush four linemen and still put pressure on the opposing quarterback.

WSU’s young offensive line has been stellar in recent weeks. They’ve given Halliday more than enough time in the pocket and Halliday has responded by putting up video game-like numbers and breaking the NCAA FBS record for most passing yards in a single game with 734 last week.

However, there is a big difference between Stanford’s and Cal’s defenses. Offensive Line Coach Clay McGuire is fully aware of the challenge Stanford brings for the Cougar O-line.

“The thing about these guys is they’re tough kids and they’re coached really well and coached really hard,” McGuire said. “They don’t get tired, it’s one of those things you play teams and you can definitely tell you wear guys out and everything like that and this is a group that plays every snap and that’s something they do as good as anybody in the country.”

Last season, Stanford had no problem getting to Halliday as they knocked him out of the game early in the second half. McGuire said the O-line would have to stick to their fundamentals to have success.

“Well, we just gotta do our job,” McGuire said. “The biggest thing is we need to work on our technique, come off the ball and stay on blocks, these guys are really good about getting off blocks so if we can just stay on them, let our backs do the work we should be OK.”

If the Cougar O-line can handle the Stanford defensive line, it will allow Halliday to do what he’s doing better than anybody else in the country: throwing touchdowns and moving the ball on offense.

WSU Front-Seven vs. Stanford’s Offensive Line

If Stanford has a weakness, it’s the offensive line. The Cardinal lost four of their starters from last season and all of them at least made the Pac-12 Honorable Mention team. The lone returner is hulking junior left tackle Andrus Peat.

Since Stanford’s senior quarterback Kevin Hogan took over in November of 2012, the Cardinals have primarily been successful running the ball to set up the passing game. However, the loss of the offensive line has been a glaring hole for them so far this season.

WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske said his unit is focused on forcing Hogan to throw.

“Hogan will be ready, be ready to go,” Breske said. “We’ve got to do a good job against the run game, force him into the passing game where he scrambles and that type of deal so it’ll be a mix pack (defensive packages).”

The Cougars have been prone to give up big plays this season. Breske said the biggest issue is players need to stay within themselves and their technique.

“I think just really rely on your technique, your man-to-man technique, keeping proper leverage, flipping your hips when you need to flip your hips and that type of thing so really rely on your technique,” Breske said.

The Cougar’s defensive front-seven has been the strength of their defense halfway through the season, but they will need to put on a performance similar to the Oregon game if they have any hopes of shutting down Stanford’s offense.

Connor Halliday vs. Stanford Secondary

Head Coach Mike Leach said he believes Halliday has yet to reach his statistical ceiling.

“He can be better. It was good, but he can be better, he’d agree with that too,” Leach said. “I thought he read the field good but it wasn’t perfect, I thought he threw the ball accurately but not perfect, I thought he did a really good job at the huddle getting the most out of those guys, but just everything overall there’s no sense in him being settled or satisfied, I mean this is all just kind of a pursuit of improvement and so he needs to continue that.”

The Stanford defense is statistically the best in the nation, but most of their success has come up front while the secondary has had some issues. The pass rush is the foundation of their defense and Stanford has yet to face a team that throws the ball as much as WSU this season.

If the Cougars can neutralize the Stanford pass rush, then it’ll be up to Halliday to make accurate throws and properly address his reads and progressions against a secondary that is generally conservative.

Based on how the season has gone thus far for Halliday, WSU will take their chances on their quarterback who leads the nation in passing yards and has 26 touchdown tosses to just 7 interceptions this season.

If the Cougars need to pull off the upset to avoid falling for the fifth time this season, which would stifle the Cougars’ bowl game chances. As Halliday said in his Tuesday teleconference, this is a must win for the Cougars.

The game can be seen on ESPN tonight at 6 p.m.