Stanford is on the road Saturday with a mildly depleted defense and a precarious situation on offense, where a sophomore quarterback's blind side will be protected by a sophomore left guard, sophomore left tackle and sophomore tight end.

In past years, this would have been a good spot to insert the punch line: Good thing the Cardinal is playing Washington State.

But this isn't the same Wazzu that Pac-12 teams have come to know and demolish.

Under second-year coach Mike Leach, the Cougars are joining the ranks of the respectable. They held their own in a loss at Auburn, upset USC in the Coliseum and beat Southern Utah and Idaho by a combined score of 90-10.

"There's no question we're improving," said Leach, who's best known as the creator of the so-called Air Raid passing offense. "But we have a long way to go. Each week is a work in progress."

The Cougars are second nationally in pass defense and 10th in total defense. Granted, they've faced several touchdown-challenged opponents, including USC. But the core is essentially the same group that played Stanford to a standstill at the line of scrimmage last season.

WSU limited the Cardinal to 3.2 yards per rush in a game that was far closer than expected: The Cougars were 9 yards from the game-tying touchdown in the final minute before Stanford held on for a 24-17 victory.

"They took it to us," Stanford coach David Shaw said of WSU's defense. "I see the same effort (this season). They're aggressive. They're smart. You don't see guys out of position. You see a coordinated effort."

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who played sparingly in the '12 game, will rely on three sophomores to help contain the Cougars in front of a pro-WSU crowd at CenturyLink Field in Seattle: tight end Luke Kaumatule, left tackle Andrus Peat and left guard Joshua Garnett, who's making his first career start because All-American David Yankey is on a leave of absence to attend to a family matter.

"It's business as usual," Shaw said. "This is why we recruited them."

Garnett is from Puyallup, Wash., approximately 40 miles south of Seattle, and has attended numerous games at CenturyLink -- the raucous home of the Seattle Seahawks and site of Stanford's 17-13 loss to Washington one year and a day ago.

The Cougars have a large alumni base in Seattle and attempt to schedule a game at CenturyLink each season.

"The way they engineered the stadium, it's really loud," Garnett said. "Last year, you could hardly hear anything."

  • Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson (knee) will miss his second consecutive game.

    Free safety Ed Reynolds is suspended for the first half as a result of a targeting penalty incurred last week.

    For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.