The only aspect of Stanford’s 24-17 victory over Washington State on Saturday that was not surprising was that the No. 17 Cardinal was the winner.
The Cougars (2-6, 0-5 in the Pac-12) lost their fifth straight game, but outplayed the heavily favored Cardinal at Stanford Stadium in virtually every category and were in position to score the tying touchdown in the final minute.
The Cougars outgained Stanford 385-256 and had 25 first downs compared with 13 for Stanford (6-2, 4-1). And when Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel hit Bobby Ratliff on a 25-yard pass on a fourth-and-21 play to give WSU a first down at the Stanford 9-yard line with 40 seconds left, it appeared the game might be headed for overtime.
But an intentional grounding penalty on Tuel when he was rushed by Usua Amanam and a sack by Henry Anderson ended the game.
“We played hard. We played well. We played a complete game. But Stanford played a more mature game,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “We outplayed them in most aspects.”
The Cardinal defense again saved Stanford by producing a school-record 10 sacks.
“That (record) means that’s what we needed to do to get the win,” Cardinal defensive end Ben Gardner said.
That helped hold the Cougars to minus-16 rushing yards one week after limiting Cal to three yards on the ground. It also helped counter the 401 passing yards Tuel produced while completing 41 of 63 passes.
The Stanford defense even scored what proved to be the deciding touchdown on a fourth-quarter interception return by Ed Reynolds, making up for a poor performance by the Cardinal offense.
Washington State entered the game ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense, but had its best defensive effort of the season while illuminating Stanford’s offensive deficiencies.
“We knew all we had to do was take away 33 and the tight ends,” WSU linebacker Justin Sagote said.
No. 33 is Stepfan Taylor, who had a career-high 189 yards last week against Cal, but managed only 58 yards on 21 carries against Washington State.
Cardinal tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo have provided well over half of the Cardinal’s receiving yardage this season, but they combined for just one catch and 20 yards against the Cougars.
Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes was 7-for-15 for 136 yards, but more than half of his yards came on one play – a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jamal-Rashad Patterson in the second quarter that gave Stanford a 10-7 lead.
“It definitely wasn’t the kind of game we wanted to play,” Nunes said. “Offensively, we’ve got to get going.”
The Cardinal faces Colorado next week, but then plays Oregon State and Oregon in its final two games.
“We played at about 70 to 75 percent of our capabilities,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We played hard; our execution was lacking. We can play so much better, and we’ll have to.”
Stanford broke a 10-10 halftime tie with a 78-yard touchdown drive on its first possession of the third quarter. A 20-yard pass to Ertz, a 23-yard pass to Drew Terrell and a pass interference call on the Cougars were the key plays on the drive, which gave the Cardinal a 17-10 lead.
The Cardinal gave itself some breathing room when Reynolds got his fourth interception of the season and returned it 25 yards for a Stanford touchdown that made it 24-10 with 10:43 left.
However, Washington State marched 75 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-17, with Tuel hitting Kristoff Williams with a 10-yard scoring pass with 6:29 to go.
The Cougars got the ball back at its 20 with 3:37 to play and marched to Cardinal 20-yard line. But a chop-block penalty pushed the ball back to the 38, and Tuel had to hit a big fourth-down pass to get the ball to the Cardinal 9. The intentional grounding call included a 10-second runoff on the clock, leaving 15 seconds. And when Tuel was unable to get rid of the ball and took a sack, Stanford had survived again.
It was the sixth Stanford game decided by six points or less, and the Cardinal has won four of them, all but one being a low-scoring affair.
Gardner said that’s the way it’s going to be with this team.
“We’re not built to run up the score on teams,” he said.
Notes: Despite sunny, 77-degree weather, Stanford Stadium was only about one-quarter full when the game started. Presumably, the caliber of Stanford’s opponent and the San Francisco Giants’ participation in Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday accounted for the poor attendance . . . Tuel replaced Connor Halliday as Washington State’s starting quarterback on Saturday. It was Tuel’s first start since the Sept. 8 game against Eastern Washington. . . Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery missed his third straight game with a leg injury.