STANFORD, Calif. — Mike Leach had no harsh words for his team’s effort or performance this time. The first-year Washington State coach only praised his opponent and hoped his players could learn to finish.
The way this season has unfolded for the Cougars, that’s called progress.
Jeff Tuel threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and was sacked 10 times in Washington State’s 24-17 loss at No. 19 Stanford on Saturday.
“We played well, we played hard, we played a complete game. Stanford played with a little more maturity than we did,” Leach said. “They had the sense and expectation of when to go for the kill.”
Ed Reynolds stepped in front of Tuel’s pass for the safety’s fourth interception — and second returned for a score — this season early in the fourth quarter to bail out the Cardinal offense again. He ran 25 yards untouched into the end zone to give Stanford (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) a two-touchdown lead, highlighting another swarming defensive effort that held the Cougars to minus-16 yards rushing and forced Leach’s aerial offense to throw 60 times.
The Cougars still had a strong showing considering what they’ve done this season.
At one point this year, Leach likened his seniors to an “empty corpse.” He saw an improved attitude in a 31-17 home loss to California two weeks ago, saying “We weren’t very corpse-like on the sideline.”
Washington State (2-6, 0-5), which has lost five straight and is the only winless team in Pac-12 play, allowed season lows with 256 yards of total offense and 136 yards passing against Stanford.
“It was still kind of sorrow because it was a tough loss,” said Washington State’s Dominique Williams, who caught nine passes for 100 yards. “But at the same time, look at where we’re at and what we have to live up to.”
Stanford’s Josh Nunes completed 7 of 15 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown and Ryan Hewitt ran for a short score. A week after running for a career-high 189 yards against rival California, Stepfan Taylor was held to 58 yards on 21 carries.
Washington State had 25 first downs to only 12 for Stanford, which converted 5 of 12 third downs and only put together one complete drive all game. Stanford coach David Shaw also spelled Nunes with backup Kevin Hogan on five consecutive plays — part of a “designed package,” he said, for the mostly read-option quarterback — between the third and fourth quarters.
“The defense did a lot of great things all night getting after the quarterback,” said Nunes, a redshirt junior charged with the difficult task of replacing No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck this season. “We have to give these guys a break every now and then.”
Tuel led a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kristoff Williams with 6:29 to play to get Washington State within a touchdown. Stanford managed two first downs before punting the ball back and giving the Cougars another chance.
Marquess Wilson made a leaping 42-yard catch to move Washington State to the Stanford 23. And on fourth-and-21, Bobby Ratliffe caught a 25-yard pass from Tuel at the 9.
Then Usua Amanam pressured Tuel into a 15-yard intentional grounding penalty and an automatic 10-second runoff. With Washington State looking for one final heave to the end zone, Henry Anderson planted Tuel into the ground as time expired.
“There was some miscommunication between me and Marquess,” said Tuel, who threw for 401 yards and two touchdowns, completing 43 of 60 passes on mostly short outs that Stanford allowed. “But bottom line: I can’t take a sack in that situation.”
Both teams had few offensive highlights in this one.
Tuel hit Dominique Williams for a 43-yard completion, then went to him again when he floated a 3-yard TD pass to the corner of the end zone that put the Cougars ahead 7-3 midway through the second quarter.
The rare lead for Washington State this season didn’t last long.
Just 47 seconds later, Nunes found Jamal-Rashad Patterson on a broken play with the cornerback blitzing and no safety help over the top. Patterson caught the short pass and sprinted down the sideline for a 70-yard touchdown that put Stanford back in front 10-7 on its longest play of the season.
Stanford took advantage of a pass interference call on Anthony Carpenter that extended the opening drive of the third quarter. Hewitt bulldozed through the line for a 1-yard TD run — the fullback’s first of the season — on third down before Reynolds intercepted Tuel’s pass to put Stanford ahead 24-10 with 10:43 remaining.