Cougars host No. 8 Stanford with Pac-12 North on the line

Cougar football is playing for control of the Pac-12 North, and it’s late October. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

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On Halloween night, the Washington State Cougars (5-2, 3-1) will be hosting the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal (6-1, 5-0) with the Pac-12 North (essentially) up for grabs. Stanford is the early 12-point favorite heading into Saturday’s match-up and that is likely to go up as we get closer to game time as bettors move money towards the rolling Cardinal.

Gabe Marks vs Zona

Gabe Marks became the first Cougar WR to score four touchdowns in a game, including the dagger against Arizona on Saturday. (Courtesy of MyNorthwest)

Stanford has reeled off six straight wins since their stunning loss at Northwestern to open up their season, with the closest victory being a 41-31 thrashing of USC in the Coliseum. The offense has averaged 43 points per game during the Cardinal’s winning streak and has been practically unstoppable on the ground.

Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey has averaged 6.2 yards per carry, and has absolutely dominated every defense he’s faced…including an excellent Washington squad. McCaffrey carried the ball 23 times for 109 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and one touchdown. I fully expect McCaffrey to get the ball 25-30 times on the 31st, and break off some huge runs during the game.

The Cardinal’s offense isn’t the only one torching defenses, as the Cougars’ offense has topped the 500 total yards in five of their seven games. Washington State’s offense has been fueled by the dominating performance of reigning Pac-12 player of the week Luke Falk, and a surprisingly efficient running game. If the WSU’s running game can continue to remain efficient, the Air Raid is going to be extremely difficult to stop; which is going to lead to a lot of wins for the Cougars.

Whichever team wins this game will have the inside track towards the Pac-12 North title, and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, Calif.

This isn’t really that surprising of a situation for Stanford to be in, head coach David Shaw has been really good at recruiting top tier talent in the trenches, and finding enough pieces at quarterback and wideout to make Stanford one of the more dominant teams in college football. But it is a complete 180 degree turnaround for a Cougar team that started its season with the worst loss in program history.

It was a loss that left many fans, myself included, wondering if Mike Leach was really the head coach to get WSU on the winning track.

The real downer here is the fact that special teams has continued to be an area of major weakness for Washington State. It is now crystal clear that Andrew Furney’s leg was able to mask a lot of the issues that the Cougars special teams possess, year in and year out. And that has to make you wonder about the man at the top of the program.

Mike Leach is in year four of his rebuild project, yes he got the Cougars to a bowl game in his second year, but defense and special teams continue to cause all sorts of problems for the football program. Those two units were atrocious in 2014, and are off to an auspicious start in 2015 with this incredibly disappointing loss to Portland State. Is there a chance that the defense could solidify and the special teams might stop fumbling? Absolutely (this is the first game after all), but it’s also really clear that whatever coaching method being used isn’t working…and it needs a drastic change.”

After the loss to Portland State, I was livid and ready to burn the program to the ground and start over (again). Which is why I was so proud of the fact what I wrote in my article about that loss, I didn’t go and put the program, coaches or players on full blast; all I did was say it was fair to start asking questions about if Leach was the right guy for the job. It seemed like a fair question to ask at the time; the narrow victory over Rutgers and the shaky win over Wyoming only made me doubt his fit even more.

And then the Cougars ended a nine game losing streak to Oregon, in Autzen Stadium, then they followed it up with a blow-out victory over Oregon State, and (finally) upending 6.5 point favorite Arizona on the road. The players on both sides of the ball — we’re just going to ignore special teams for a little bit — have continuously shown improvement throughout the season. The continual improvement shows that this coaching staff knows exactly what it’s doing.

It turns out that Mike Leach is actually a pretty good fit for Cougar football, and that I was wrong to doubt that.

It’s never felt this good to be this wrong.

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