Stanford's trip to Seattle to play Washington State doesn't figure to be a cake walk.
Not after last season.
In a game at Stanford Stadium, the Cougars, who eventually finished with a 3-9 record, came nine yards away from tying it in the waning moments before back-to-back sacks of Jeff Tuel preserved a 24-17 Cardinal win. In a season full of close games for the eventual Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champion, that near disaster might have been the most surprising.
A close game this time around wouldn't rank as high on the shock-value scale.
After several years of ineptitude, the Cougars (3-1) finally have the look of a team that can be competitive in Pac-12 play. Their current three-game winning streak is the school's first since 2006 -- when Walt Harris coached Stanford to a 1-11 season -- and has come to life in an unforeseen manner.
"The one thing no one talks about ever when you're talking about Mike Leach is the defense and defensively, they are playing really well," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "They are playing really hard, sound defense. You don't see a lot of big runs and passes. You see guys where they are supposed to be making tackles."
The Cougars have allowed just one touchdown in the last 10 quarters. And while the teams they played (USC, Southern Utah, Idaho) are nowhere near the caliber of No. 5 Stanford (3-0), it's significant progress at a place that's been devoid of that for roughly a decade.
"Each week is kind of a work in progress," Leach said. "We need improvement this week too."
WSU appears to have caught Stanford at a good time. The Cardinal will be without several difference makers for various reasons.
All-American safety Ed Reynolds will miss the first half as a result of his targeting ejection against Arizona State, All-American guard David Yankey is away from the team dealing with an unspecified family matter and defensive end Henry Anderson, who sacked Tuel to end last season’s game, is out with a knee injury.
Devon Carrington, best known for his game-saving tackle of Marcus Mariota against Oregon last season, will step in for Reynolds and sophomore Joshua Garnett will start in place of Yankey. Garnett, a Puyallup, Wash., native and ESPN.com's No. 1 prospect in the state in 2012, said he expects a lot of friends and family in attendance at CenturyLink Field.
The Stanford coaching staff has been high on Garnett since early in the recruiting process and has been encouraged by his progress this year, using him in various jumbo packages.
"I challenged him two weeks ago to not just put flashes on film, but to put what he wants on film," Shaw said. "He's so athletic and so big and so strong and so physical. I wanted to see him move people and knock him back and, honestly, through two weeks, that's what he has done."
Shaw did not specify when Yankey, who was named the team's offensive player of the game last week, would return.