Buoyed by a dominant defense that harassed Stanford’s quarterbacks all game, and an offense that seemed to grow stronger and more efficient as the game wore on, the Cougars (3-2 overall 2-0 Pac-12), felled No. 15 Stanford 42-16 to notch their first win over a ranked opponent since 2013.
PALO ALTO, Calif. – As the final seconds ran off the clock and the Washington State fans in the southwest corner of Stanford Stadium rejoiced, the magnitude of what the Cougars had just done began to sink in.
Buoyed by a dominant defense that harassed Stanford’s quarterbacks all game, and an offense that seemed to grow stronger and more efficient as the game wore on, the Cougars (3-2 overall 2-0 Pac-12), felled No. 15 Stanford 42-16 to notch their first win over a ranked opponent since beating No. 19 UCLA last fall.
The victory snapped WSU’s eight-game losing streak to Stanford that dated to 2007, when the Cougars beat the Cardinal in Pullman.
It also marked the Cougars’ first win over a top-15 team since they beat No. 5 Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
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But perhaps, more important, the win went a long way toward keeping the Cougars in the Pac-12 North race – something that looked improbable just a month ago, when WSU returned to Pullman from a tough loss at Boise State 0-2 on the year, plagued by issues on and off the field.
Since then, however, the Cougars have won three-straight games and beaten Oregon and Stanford (3-2, 2-2) to keep pace with UW, standing undefeated in conference play at the top of the Pac-12 North.
“This one is up there,” said senior receiver Gabe Marks, when asked how this win against Stanford stacked up against some of the big victories the Cougs have put together in his career — last year’s wins over Oregon and UCLA, and the 10-7 win over No. 25 USC in 2013.
“Stanford has been among the best of the conference for a while now,” Marks said. “Since I’ve been here, they’ve been a powerhouse. These past two weeks have really been important for us as a team, and as players, to finally see the work pay off and realize our potential and what we’ve become and what we thought we would be. It took a couple of games to figure it out.”
After two big rushing performances in their last two games, the Cougars went back to the air against Stanford, with WSU quarterback Luke Falk completing 30 of 40 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns, despite also throwing two interceptions.
But the ground game did just enough to keep the Cardinal guessing, with Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams combining for 98 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
“It kept (Stanford) honest,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “And that’s something that, historically, we haven’t been able to do against a front like this. They try to get you one-dimensional. But we tried to have a lot of people touch the ball, and it’s worked out.”
Falk gave the team a scare in the third quarter, when he took a shot to the head from Stanford safety Justin Reid, who hit the quarterback late at the end of a run. Reid, who led Stanford with six tackles to that point, was ejected from the game.
Falk left for one play, but came right back in and never flinched, running for another first down on his first play back. In many ways, that offensive drive epitomized the way the night went for the Cougars.
After back-to-back false start penalties on third and goal that moved the Cougars back to the Stanford 17, Washington State’s offense kept marching as Falk hit Gabe Marks for a 17-yard touchdown pass to give WSU a 28-10 lead over Stanford in the third quarter.
But the drive that put the game out of the Cardinal’s reach and emptied their stadium came early in the fourth quarter when Falk hit River Cracraft for a 16-yard score.
Cracraft led WSU’s receivers with seven receptions for 130 yards, and he had several third-down receptions for long gains early in the game that kept drives alive for WSU before the offense truly got into a rhythm.
At halftime, the score was WSU 14, Stanford 3, with missed opportunities aplenty for both teams.
But the first half was really a story of WSU’s defensive dominance.
The Cougars’ defense finished with three turnovers, including interceptions from Isaac Dotson and Logan Tago, and a strip sack from Peyton Pelluer that Dotson recovered.
The defense also doubled their season sack total, notching four sacks against the Cardinal a week after UW sacked Stanford’s quarterbacks eight times. The defense did not allow a Stanford an offensive touchdown until the final play of the game.
Alex Grinch’s unit opened the evening with two-straight three-and-outs despite having to hold the Stanford offense at WSU’s 36 yard line after Falk threw an interception on the second play from scrimmage.
“I thought that was huge,” Leach said. “I thought that was really big because Stanford is such a strong, physical team. They can make things happen very quickly just because they move you around. “
WSU held Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey to 35 rushing yards on eight carries, and 23 of his yards came on a run at the end of the opening quarter on a Cardinal drive that resulted in Conrad Ukropina’s successful field goal.
Aside from that play, the Cougars’ defense kept Stanford pinned between the 25s, denying the Cardinal access to the WSU red zone through the entire first half.
Linebackers Frankie Luvu and Pelluer each sacked Stanford quarterback Ryan Burns in the first half, and Pelluer’s sack forced a fumble that Dotson recovered. But WSU’s offense couldn’t convert on the ensuing drive, with its progress ending in Erik Powell’s missed 35-yard field goal that dropped him to 0 for 5 on field-goal attempts.
The Cougars’ two first half touchdowns came courtesy of wide receiver Tavares Martin, who caught a 5-yard pass from Falk toward the end of the first half and then made a beautiful play, catching a ball up the middle, faking out half the Stanford defense and scooting into the left corner of the end zone for 29-yard touchdown.