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September 27, 2013

Ask The Insider: Stanford Preview

WazzuWatch.com is taking an in-depth look at the Cougars' big test against No. 5 Stanford this weekend and we caught up with Andy Drukarev, Publisher of CardinalSportsReport.com on the Rivals.com / Yahoo! Sports network.

We dive into a comprehensive Q&A to discuss what to expect under center, the Stanford defensive package, playmakers to look out for, his prediction and much more below.

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WazzuWatch:
Stanford is known for its physical play up front and pounding the ball at the defense with their running game. Senior running back Tyler Gaffney gashed the Sun Devils last week for 95 yards and two touchdowns while Anthony Wilkerson has also produced some big numbers on limited touches. What kind of runner is Gaffney and how many carries do you think both players will garner?

Drukarev: Gaffney, like Wilkerson, is more of a power runner, though he has some elusiveness and is a fan of the spin move. While neither player runs in the 4.3 range, each weighs north of 210 pounds and is a relatively complete player. The they're listed as co-starters on the depth chart, Gaffney has received 58 carries this season to Wilkerson's 31. But one could argue that Wilkerson played the best game of his career against Arizona State (while Gaffney fumbled once and nearly did on a second play), and while Gaffney might receive the majority of the carries on Saturday, both players are sure to see significant playing time.

WW: How do you think the absence of David Yankey will affect the offensive line and running game?

Drukarev: There's no way around it: Yankey's absence is a huge blow to Stanford's offense. The redshirt junior is arguably the top offensive lineman in the nation, and is coming off a dominant performance against Arizona State for which he was named the Cardinal's offensive player of the game. Specifically, Yankey is an elite pulling guard whose blocking plays a significant role in the success of the Cardinal's power run game.

Yankey will be replaced by sophomore Josh Garnett, a Washington native. Garnett will make his first career start at left guard on Saturday. Garnett was one of the most highly recruited offensive linemen in the nation two years ago and is physically gifted, but replacing Yankey will be a tall task. I don't envision Garnett being a weak spot on the offensive line -- he should more than hold his own 00 but it's unlikely he'll be as dominant as Yankey as a blocker in the run game.

WW: Tight ends have caught just four passes in the first three games. This has opened up more work for a healthy Ty Montgomery, who has 14 catches for 273 yards and four touchdowns.  Is Stanford looking to slowly incorporate the tight end position more as the season progresses? Outside Montgomery, who are the receiving threats WSU will need to account for?

Drukarev: The personnel in Stanford's tight ends group is different than it has been in recent years. The Cardinal no longer possess a legitimate receiving threat a la Zach Ertz or Coby Fleener who can spread the field. Instead, the group is largely comprised of bigger, physical players whose best skill is blocking. The tight end is still used in the passing game, and I would expect the group to be targeted more often as the season progresses, but it won't be targeted anywhere near as frequently as it has been lately.

Montgomery's emergence as a legitimate No. 1 receiving threat has helped compensate for the tight ends' lack of production. As has 6-foot-4, 235-pound Devon Cajuste, who does some of the things that Zach Ertz did a year ago. Cajuste is a very good athlete with good hands and has made several impressive palys this season.

Beyond those two, Stanford's receiver hierarchy is still somewhat muddled. Along with Montgomery, Washington native Michael Rector is probably the best deep threat on the roster, but he's yet to have a breakout performance. Sophomore Kodi Whitfield has an advanced knowledge of the offense and is a strong route runner, but doesn't have the explosive athleticism of a Rector or Montgomery. Jeff Trojan and Jordan Pratt are solid possession receivers. Kelsey Young is the hybrid of the group; he doesn't have great hands and won't be used frequently as a downfield receiving threat, but he's a dynamic athlete who has had success on plays designed to get him with the ball in space.

WW: How has Kevin Hogan looked this season? The Cougars only saw limited work from him in their 24-17 loss in Palo Alto last season. He's obviously mobile but has been more of a pocket passer this season, completing 62 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and two interceptions.  What can the Cougars expect to see from Hogan on Saturday night in a drenched CenturyLink?

Drukarev: I think the best way to describe Hogan this season is "solid". Stanford's redshirt sophomore quarterback has missed on some throws this year, and his deep ball still needs work (Hogan tends to miss long on those throws), but he's limited mistakes and done a good job managing Stanford's offense. He hasn't made a ton of spectacular throws, but hasn't had many completely errant misfires either.

More generally, Hogan is an above average athlete who throws well on the run. He doesn't have a cannon for an arm, but has good velocity on most of his throws. He's better than Josh Nunes in nearly every facet of the game, and will test Washington State's defense far more than Nunes did a year ago.

WW: Predicated on short passes and quick decisions, the Cougars' offense will look to get the ball out to playmakers and generate yards after the catch.  After giving up 417 yards to Arizona State last week, the Cardinal are No. 8 in the conference in total defense. What has worked and what hasn't worked on that side of the ball?  Has Murphy, Skov and company been able to create consistent pressure?

Drukarev: Though it hasn't been dominant in every facet of the game this year, Stanford's defense is far better than its statistics might suggest. The Cardinal has played with large leads in all three of its games so far this year, and gave up points and yards late in the game the last two weeks. Despite facing a triple option team, Stanford has been stout against the run this year, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry allowed. The front-seven has also done a good job generating quarterback pressure; the Cardinal recorded 10 tackles for loss in its win over Arizona State. (Stanford's season tackle for loss and sack stats are somewhat skewed by facing Army's unconventional offense and future NFL QB David Fales of San Jose State, who's hard to bring down.)

So though the Cardinal defense hasn't been statistically dominant this year, nobody within the program is too concerned about the unit's performance.

WW: The secondary will definitely be tested this weekend. With Ed Reynolds missing the first half, who will need to step up in his place? Who are the players on the outside that could have an impact on this game?

Drukarev: Stanford's two-deep in the secondary has taken some hits in recent weeks. In addition to Reynolds, who will miss the first half due to a targeting suspension last week, backup cornerback Barry Browning was ruled out for Saturday's contest. The result is that backup safety Devon Carrington -- who's also Stanford's top backup at corner -- will replace Reynolds at free safety in the first half. He'll likely slide back to corner in the second half. Additionally, expect to see a lot of starting nickel Usua Amana, the reigning Rose Bowl Defensive MVP. But the Cardinal's depth will certainly be tested, and Stanford would probably love to see its offense dominate time of possession, especially in the half while Reynolds is out.

WW: What is your final score prediction and why?

Drukarev: I expect Stanford to win, but a variety of factors (playing on the road in a loud and hostile environment without some of their best players) make this a difficult game for the Cardinal. Stanford should be able to run on the Cougars, but if the Cardinal's offense is not able to put together extended, clock-eating drives, Washington State's quick-hitting pass game could prove quite problematic. In the I end I do think Stanford has a talent advantage in the trenches and enough proven depth to endure some of the challenges they will face, but only to the tune of a 31-24 win.


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