Toppled by the biggest challenge his team had faced all season, Chris Petersen could offer only the promise of more satisfying Saturdays ahead.
Stanford pummeled the Washington Huskies on a warm October night in Palo Alto last year, taking advantage of several key UW injuries — including a shoulder ailment that kept starting quarterback Jake Browning on the sidelines — in a 31-14 victory that was never close.
It wound up the Huskies’ most lopsided loss of the season, the one game in which their opponent simply beat them up, over and over and over, and won easily as a result.
That night, Petersen said: “Stanford, they kind of build it like you’d like to build it.”
And: “Down the road, we’ll be a good football team. But not tonight.”
And: “I know this crew is going to be good. I can’t put the timeline on it. But I know it.”
How’s this for a timeline? Unbeaten, seventh-ranked Stanford visits unbeaten, 10th-ranked Washington on Friday night at Husky Stadium, the biggest game of the year in the Pac-12 so far. The winner will take control of the North division. As of Monday, fewer than 2,000 tickets remained.
If UW’s top-10 ranking doesn’t signify that the Huskies have returned to their long-relinquished status as a Pac-12 front-runner, a victory over a top-10 Stanford team certainly would. And a victory in this game would offer a particularly powerful statement about how quickly the Huskies have caught up to the league’s most consistent power, given the way Stanford crushed them a year ago.
In that game, the Huskies ran only 45 offensive plays, only 18 in the first half. They achieved only two first downs before halftime, Stanford’s defense taking advantage of a stagnant Huskies offense quarterbacked by redshirt-freshman backup K.J. Carta-Samuels.
Meanwhile, Stanford bashed its way to 478 yards of total offense against a UW defense that allowed fewer points than anyone in the league last season.
“They were significantly better than us at their jobs,” said UW right tackle Kaleb McGary, “and the score reflected that.”
The question, of course, is whether UW has improved enough to match the physical challenge Stanford poses. This is a different Cardinal team, with different personnel at quarterback, on the offensive line and on the defensive line, and with its top two cornerbacks, Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, both out due to injuries. But the Stanford brand — with three of the last four Pac-12 titles to its name — doesn’t change. They are a big, physical outfit on both sides of the line of scrimmage — through three games, Stanford’s defense has allowed three touchdowns — and they still have junior tailback Christian McCaffrey, last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up.
“You’re going to have to earn it and execute well,” Browning said. “It’s not a team you can have a couple turnovers against or a couple bad plays, missed opportunities against. You’ve got to make them count. I think the big thing is they make you earn it. So we’ve just got to execute really well and at a high level, like always.”
Washington’s offense did impose its will at times last week against Arizona with a game plan that emphasized a physical ground attack. The Huskies ran the ball 51 times for 352 yards, their most rushing yardage in a game this season. Junior tailback Lavon Coleman used three runs of 38 yards or more (plus a 24-yarder in overtime) to total 186 yards on 11 carries.
“I think it was fun. Our guys really enjoyed getting in that mode,” offensive line coach Chris Strausser said. “…Our guys were excited to get a chance to really grind it out and for them, that’s fun football.”
But are they better prepared to do it against Stanford than they were last October?
“We’ll find out Friday night, for sure,” Strausser said. “I thought we had good players last year, and they got after us pretty good up front.”
Asked the same question, McGary replied: “Significantly. I think we’ve done a great job this year preparing for every team we’ve had, and I think we’ve done a great job preparing for Stanford. I think we’re ready to roll, man.”
Petersen doesn’t want to assign too much significance to the prospect of victory — “I don’t know what it would mean,” he said — instead choosing to evaluate Stanford in the most obvious terms.
“It’s the next game with a really, really good team,” Petersen said. “I know we have to play really well to beat these guys. We have to play our best football to get that done.”