WSU Cougars

‘Downhill, smash mouth football:’ No. 18 Stanford heads to Washington State

Stanford head coach David Shaw in the second half of an NCAA college football game, in Corvallis, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 26.
Stanford head coach David Shaw in the second half of an NCAA college football game, in Corvallis, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 26. AP

Stanford will arrive in Pullman this Saturday with a defensive line bigger than most, an offense line that’s bigger than the defensive line and a running back who has to be accounted for every time he tucks the ball into his arms – and probably will be found in end zone a few seconds later if he isn’t.

Over the course of the last decade or so, college football has endured a wave of sweeping changes – everything from the varying degrees of the spread offense, to a growing emphasis on speed over size as it relates to defense, to enhancements in what players are wearing every Saturday, and how many different configurations of an outfit they can conjure up in a 12-game season.

As for the Cardinal? They wear red jerseys at home, white jerseys on the road and only spice it once or twice a season with an all-black alternate uniform that would probably be considered “sleek” to the folks in Palo Alto.

“Obviously, those kids understand what’s important and it’s not about the flash and some of the glitzy things,” Washington State University outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “From the outside looking in, it seems like they just go to work. Grab their hard hat and lunch pale and go to work and take care of business.”

And business is still booming for the Cardinal under seventh-year coach David Shaw, whose team enters Saturday’s game in Pullman (12:30 p.m., FOX) ranked 18th in the AP Top 25 and 21st in the College Football Playoff poll.

It’s hard to win and it’s hard to win at the rate that they’ve been able to do it.

WSU assistant coach Alex Grinch

This won’t go down as an all-time Stanford team, let alone an all-time Shaw team, but presuming the Cardinal don’t drop their final four regular season games, they’ll lock down a winning record for the seventh consecutive year under Shaw and ninth consecutive year overall. Six of the last eight Stanford teams have hit the double-digit wins plateau – three of those six won 12 games – and the other two finished 8-5.

Put Shaw down for 70 wins, 19 losses and four Pac-12 North division titles as Stanford’s coach. Among active FBS coaches, his winning percentage (.784) is the sixth-best.

“Of all the programs in the country ... I think all coaches in general have the utmost respect for what coach Shaw has done there, and the consistency of winning is so, so difficult to do in college football,” WSU coach Alex Grinch said. “Not just on a week in, week out basis, but just on a year in, year out basis. It’s hard to win and it’s hard to win at the rate that they’ve been able to do it.”

Added Manning: “When you start talking about who’s there at the end of the day. Stanford’s always in that conversation.”

Shaw’s been the one presiding over this era of excellence, but he isn’t necessarily the reason it exists.

“I think David Shaw’s a good coach, but Jim Harbaugh built that (program),” Cougars coach Mike Leach reminded during a news conference on Monday.

Harbaugh inherited a program that went 1-11 in 2006 and had the Cardinal winning eight games by 2009. When he handed the keys over to Shaw in 2011, Harbaugh was coming off a season that saw Stanford accrue a 12-1 record – the best in Palo Alto since 1908.

“They were winning quite a few games before (Shaw) got there,” Leach said.

Harbaugh was the architect, but Shaw’s the one who’s made sure the building hasn’t crumbled. Both coaches have applied the same formula.

Every team in college football talks about controlling the line of scrimmage, but the Cardinal do it with more regularity than perhaps anyone else in the country. Everyone outside of Tuscaloosa, at least.

“They play downhill, smash mouth football,” Manning said, “and it’s unique to this conference and obviously he’s done a good job if you look at his record and they’re always there.”

Manning could either be talking about the Cardinal in the thick of the Pac-12 race, or Stanford players at the forefront of the Heisman conversation. Because that’s been a constant, too.

Since 2009, the Cardinal have had three players appear four times in New York for the annual ceremony (Toby Gerhart in 2009, Andrew Luck in 2010-11, Christian McCaffrey in 2015) and the current Stanford running back, Bryce Love, is in the mix to make a trip out east once the season’s over. He wouldn’t hurt his chances by finishing the year as the country’s leading rusher -- a distinction Love currently holds, with 1,387 yards in only seven games.

It’d be the cherry on top of another prosperous Stanford season. Or just another part of the yearly routine.

“In some ways, you’re a little bit of a fan of what they’ve been able to do,” Grinch said. “At some point, you’d like to mirror that style of program.”