Palo Alto, Calif. -- There was a time in the history of the Stanford football program, not too long ago, in fact, when qualifying for a bowl signified a successful season and reason for celebration.
Those times are no more. That's what happens after back-to-back trips to BCS bowl games.
With its 24-17 victory against Washington State on Saturday, Stanford assured itself a trip to a fourth straight bowl, but the postgame mood was anything but celebratory.
As coach David Shaw fielded questions, it was clear he felt a 7-point win against a team that, in all likelihood, could finish winless in the Pac-12 fell drastically short of internal and external expectations.
"I think we can play so much better," Shaw said, "and we're going to need to."
Yeah, you could say that.
Stanford (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) has another assumed win next week when it travels to lowly Colorado -- which beat WSU -- but the road gets significantly tougher with No. 7 Oregon State and No. 4 Oregon lurking after that.
"We knew from the start there was no game on our schedule we could overlook," defensive end Ben Gardner said. "People might talk about Oregon and Oregon State, but those games don't matter unless we gets W's along the way."
Much like its "W" against San Jose State in the season opener, Saturday's win seemed more like a step back than one towards the team's oft-stated goal of a conference title.
WSU (2-6, 0-5), which came into the game ranked No. 11 in the conference in rushing defense, effectively shut down Stanford's vaunted rushing attack. Senior Stepfan Taylor carried 21 times for 58 yards (2.8 ypc) and Stanford was held to just 120 yards rushing as a team.
"Our execution was lacking," Shaw said. "In the running game, we thought we had a really good plan. We didn't execute as well as we thought we could."
The pass defense was much of the same story.
WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel completed 43 of 60 passes for 401 yards and a pair of touchdowns. If not for a pick-six from safety Ed Reynolds early in the fourth quarter to make the score 24-10, the outcome might have ended differently.
The Cougars outgained Stanford 385-256 and won the time of possession battle (33:36 to 26:24), but neither stat ended up mattering in the end.
Shaw harped on two things: the need for better execution and the belief that his team can just simply play better.
How he goes about making those things happens remains to be seen.
"Whether we shave our game plan down," Shaw said. "That's a decision I'll look at to make sure we're not doing too many things. Just to make sure we can get the execution because we had one drive today on offense that was us."
The drive he was referring to was the Cardinal's first of the second half, when it went 78 yards in 13 plays, punctuated by the first rushing touchdown of fullback Ryan Hewitt's career.
After that, Stanford's final three drives ended the same way: punt, punt, punt.
"It's frustrating, but we know we can go out there and make plays and we have all the guys in the right spots," Nunes said. "It starts with me getting us in the right play."
As frustrating as the game was for Stanford, the Cardinal did take away some positives. It held the Cougars to minus-16 yards rushing as a team and didn't allow a gain of more than three yards by a WSU running back.
"Well, nobody has run the ball real effectively against these guys, maybe Notre Dame," first-year WSU coach Mike Leach said. "Nobody ran it really effectively against them and there was a mismatch there, their front and ours."
The Cardinal also set a new single-game school record for sacks by getting to Tuel ten times.