PALO ALTO (AP) – Having navigated through the toughest portion of its schedule leading into a week off, Stanford opens the second half of the season with a far easier test.
The 12th-ranked Cardinal host a Washington State team on Saturday that is looking for its first conference win in nearly two years.
But for a Stanford team that has had one winning season the past eight years, there’s no overlooking any opponent.
“We have to make sure we get to work,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “There has not been enough winning at Stanford yet to have it ingrained in our team to know just how hard you have to work.”
The Cardinal (5-1, 2-1 Pac-10) took five days off before returning to practice earlier this week. Now that they are back, they’re looking to start a season 6-1 for the first time in 40 years.
Stanford had an impressive run through the first half of the schedule, winning handily in successive weeks against UCLA, Wake Forest and Notre Dame, before falling to current No. 1 Oregon 52-31 on the road.
The Cardinal recovered before the bye to beat Southern California 37-35 on a last-second 30-yard field goal by Nate Whitaker.
They have scored at least 30 points every game this season behind star quarterback Andrew Luck and are fifth in the nation in scoring with 43.3 points per game.
“We aren’t exactly where we’d love to be,” Luck said. “We’d love to be 6-0, but I think we are on the right track. I still don’t think we’ve played our best ball yet and we have a tough test against Washington State. Their defense plays with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and they never give up. We have to come prepared.”
Washington State has lost 15 straight games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams and 13 straight in the Pac-10. But after losing by more than 30 points a game in the conference last season, the Cougars have been far more competitive this year.
“We clearly have made some steps,” coach Paul Wulff said. “It’s evident watching our football team that we are becoming more and more physical.”
They were tied with UCLA after three quarters before eventually losing 42-28, lost 43-23 to Oregon in the second-closest game of the season for the No. 1 Ducks and held No. 15 Arizona to its second-lowest scoring game of the season in a 24-7 loss last week.
Those performances have caught the eyes of the Stanford players, who don’t expect this week’s game to be as easy as the previous two meetings that the Cardinal won by a combined score of 97-13.
“People don’t give them a lot of credit,” Stanford offensive lineman Andrew Phillips said. “You look at their record and think, ‘Oh it’s just another win.’ But when you turn on the film that’s not it at all. They get after people and they hit hard. I know Washington State is looking for that one key win to get things rolling again. That program is destined for big things. You can see it in their play.”
Stanford was where Washington State is not too long ago, winning just one game in 2006, when they lost 36-10 at home to the Cougars.
Harbaugh arrived the next season and the Cardinal have been on an upswing ever since. They made it to a bowl game last year behind Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart and are even better this season with Luck as the star of the offense.
Luck has already surpassed last year’s total of touchdown passes with 16 through the first six games. He has only thrown four interceptions and has shown the ability to run as well, with 242 yards rushing and a 7.8-yard average per carry.
“He’s the most complete guy when it comes to running the football and throwing. Andrew has the most complete package of both,” Wulff said. “He’s a surefire NFL football player.”
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