SEATTLE – Early in the second quarter last season, Keith Price was flushed out of the pocket on a third-and-long play that started at the Stanford 26.
That stalled Washington and brought on kicker Erik Folk, who had hit eight out of nine field-goal attempts up to that point in the season. He kicked from a clean hold, but the football veered right and plunked the upright. No good.
Stanford took over and put eight men near the line of scrimmage in a most powerful power-I formation. To start the ensuing 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, Stanford ran seven consecutive times. The only negative Cardinal movement was because of a holding call. Stanford packed the lunch pail, put on the hard hat and ran the ball down Washington’s throat.
That’s because the Cardinal plays a game of leverage. Once up 31-14, Stanford had twisted Washington’s arm and brought it to a knee. The Huskies were forced into constant passing to make up the deficit. Stanford just ran the ball and ran the ball, then ran some more, on the way to 446 rushing yards. The result was a 65-21 demoralization.
“I remember we lost … bad,” UW tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said when asked about last year. “I think we’re a better team than last year.”
There will be few secrets about No. 8 Stanford’s approach tonight at CenturyLink Field. It will run with Stepfan Taylor, the conference’s second-leading rusher, and try to stop the run with four linemen to enable almost constant double coverage of receivers.
The brainiacs also want to be the tough guys, a formula started by former coach Jim Harbaugh and maintained by David Shaw.
“They just play physical the whole game and we know that’s what they’re going to do,” safety Justin Glenn said. “We’ve got to prepare ourselves and get the young guys ready and tell them, you know, buckle up, strap up and get ready to play four quarters because it’s going to be a battle.”
Though improved, UW’s defense remains susceptible to the run. The Huskies are 11th in the conference against it. They also have problems running, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Stanford allows 1.6 yards per carry.
The Cardinal also has multiple massive tight ends at its disposal. Up to four will be on the field at the same time, sometimes motioning out of a fullback position, sometimes tucked on the line, other times split out. Senior tight end Zach Ertz, who leads the Cardinal in receiving yards, is 6-foot- 6, 255 pounds. Senior Levine Toilolo is 6-8, 265.
The Cardinal is also the beneficiaries of Stanford’s pile-driving approach. Once teams cheat to stop the run, the Cardinal will zip a tight end up the seam on play-action. The relentless running wears down legs and minds, leaving defenses exposed like an open wound.
“That’s part of mental toughness,” Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You can have big, fast, strong guys, but if you’re not mentally tough and you can’t handle that, being able to get your eyes on your key the 73rd play of the game, then you’re going to get us beat.”
Wilcox said sniffing out Stanford’s play-action comes from a simple place: eyes. Each lineman, linebacker and defensive back will have a “key” to focus on. Get lazy with that focus, lose your key? Trouble comes over the top.
“We’ve got to make sure we get our eyes right and don’t give them anything easy,” Wilcox said.
Stanford has the most players taller than 6-4 in the conference. Shaw said it recruits “big guys, not fat guys” to play on the offensive line where Stanford will rotate up to nine players, including former Puyallup High star Josh Garnett.
But, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said this week is about the Huskies. He’s tried to instill that approach following the Week 2 letdown in Baton Rouge, La., against LSU.
“I think at the end of the day we want to be 1-0 in Pac-12 play. That’s been the goal now for two weeks, a week-and-a-half, and that’s the goal Thursday is whatever it is going to take to get to 1-0,” Sarkisian said.
What it will take was not available last year and hasn’t been for four years. Washington hopes to change that tonight.
NO. 8 STANFORD (3-0) AT WASHINGTON (2-1)
6 P.M., CENTURYLINK FIELD, SEATTLE
TV: ESPN. RADIO: 950-AM, 850-AM, 102.9-FM
THE SERIES: Washington holds a 40-38-4 advantage in the series against Stanford but has lost four consecutive games after being the dominant team for a stretch. Last year, the Cardinal won at Stanford, 65-21.
WHAT TO WATCH: How will Washington handle Stanford’s play-action passing, and will the Huskies create space with their offense? After repeated running, Stanford will throw over the top to its tight ends, often catching safeties and corners peeking into the backfield. Washington will try to unlock Stanford’s stout defense by getting the ball to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams in isolated spots.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: This is the start of a brutal portion of the schedule for Washington, which goes to Oregon before playing host to USC the next two weeks. If the Huskies want to contend for their division title, it starts against Stanford.
THE PICK: Stanford, 37-17.
33Stepfan Taylor (RB)5-11/215sr.
Leads the Cardinal in rushing and catches. He blew through several USC arm tackles Sept. 15.
86Zach Ertz (TE)6-6/252sr.
He’s the primary target among tight ends for new quarterback Josh Nunes. A problem in the red zone and before.
11Shayne Skov (LB)6-3/242sr.
The emotional leader of the defense, often covering a chunk of his face in menacing eye-black.
44Chase Thomas (LB)6-4/248sr.
Joins Skov to form one of the best linebacker tandems in the conference. Both are expected to have NFL careers.
88Ty Montgomery (WR)6-2/212so.
One of the few speed elements for a Stanford offense built on size and banging. Also returns kickoffs.
25Bishop Sankey (RB)5-10/200so.
Can he help the Huskies get any form of running game going? It’s been a struggle for him so far.
7Shaq Thompson (LB/S)6-2/215fr.
The freshman is one of the most physically developed Huskies.
17Keith Price (QB)6-1/202jr.
Might have to throw 45 times in this game – and effectively – for the Huskies to have a shot.
76Dexter Charles (OL)6-4/292fr.
Stopping Stanford’s front four will be a huge test for him.
8Kevin Smith (WR)5-11/213jr.
One of Washington’s bigger receivers, but has been dinged email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas firstname.lastname@example.org