STANFORD, Calif. -- In a sign of how far Stanford has come since coach Jim Harbaugh arrived four years ago, a conference win that made the Cardinal bowl eligible was viewed with more disappointment than elation.
Andrew Luck threw for 190 yards and three touchdowns and No. 12 Stanford withstood three fourth quarter touchdown passes from Jeff Tuel to beat Washington State 38-28 Saturday to post its best record after seven games in 40 years.
"We got the win and a win's a win no matter how you slice it," Luck said. "But a little disappointing, a little sluggish, not sharp. I didn't feel like we ever got in a rhythm. I think that sentiment is shared by the guys on the offense. Just a little frustrated that we couldn't do better."
Stepfan Taylor ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns for the Cardinal (6-1, 3-1 Pac-10), who hadn't won six of seven to open a season since Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett helped them do it in 1970 on the way to the Rose Bowl.
The Cardinal are also eligible to go to a bowl game for the second straight season for the first time since 1995-96, but still have their goals set much higher.
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"Coach Harbaugh set a standard here," Luck said. "That standard certainly isn't just being bowl eligible."
Luck went 20 for 28 with touchdown passes to Ryan Whalen, Doug Baldwin and Coby Fleener -- the fourth time this season he's thrown for at least three TDs.
But Harbaugh was more concerned about the fourth-quarter defense, capped by Tuel's 74-yard touchdown pass to Marquess Wilson in the final minute. The Cardinal struggled without starting safety Delano Howell, who missed the game with a wrist injury.
"Some things we're going to have to address and get better at," Harbaugh said. "It really comes down to some guys just not doing what they were supposed to be doing and at times it looked atrocious. We have to address it and I will."
The Cougars (1-7, 0-5 Pac-10) lost for the third straight week to a ranked opponent, following losses to Oregon and Arizona. Washington State has lost 16 straight games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams and 14 straight in the Pac-10.
Tuel went 21 for 28 for 298 yards and four touchdown passes. He also threw interceptions on the first possessions of both halves, leading to Stanford touchdowns.
The third-quarter turnover came after the Cougars forced Stanford into its first punt of the game to open the second half and then drove into Cardinal territory with a chance to make the game competitive.
But on third-and-12 from the 34, Tuel's pass over the middle was tipped by linebacker Shayne Skov and landed in safety Taylor Skaufel's hands for his first career interception.
"Turnovers hurt us," Washington State coach Paul Wulff said. "I thought we came out in the second half and fought. I think the key moment was the turnover on our first drive, and then in the second half, we're heading down [the field] and we turn it over. That was tough."
With Taylor carrying the ball six times for 28 yards and two-way star Owen Marecic converting a fourth-and-1, Stanford drove deep into Cougars territory.
Luck then found a leaping Baldwin, who made an acrobatic catch over cornerback Daniel Simmons in the back of the end zone to make it 31-7 late in the third quarter.
"It was a perfect throw," Baldwin said. "You expect nothing less from Andrew Luck. He put it in a perfect position and all I had to do was catch it. That's all on Andrew."
The Cardinal relied heavily after that on the running game. Taylor, who carried 27 times, joined Darrin Nelson, Tommy Vardell and Toby Gerhart as the only Stanford players to post four straight 100-yard rushing games. Freshman Anthony Wilkerson added 55 yards on nine carries.
Stanford was not sharp early in its first game back from a bye week in front of a half-filled stadium on a rainy homecoming afternoon. The Cardinal settled for a field goal on their first drive despite taking over at the Washington State 7 following an interception by Marecic.
Luck threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Whalen on the second drive, but was intercepted by defensive lineman Kevin Kooyman on a screen pass early in the second quarter.
That set up Teul's 12-yard touchdown pass to Karstetter to cut Stanford's lead to 10-7. The Cardinal closed the half strong with two touchdowns from Taylor to make it 24-7 at the break and were never threatened after that.