The undefeated Washington Huskies head to the Bay Area this weekend looking to remain unbeaten.
It will not be easy.
Their opposition is the also-undefeated No. 5 Stanford Cardinal, who placed quite the beating on the Washington State Cougars in Seattle last Saturday, and destroyed the Huskies 65-7 two season ago. The defending Pac-12 champions continue their disciplined, physical style of play, and undoubtedly will be the Huskies’ toughest competition so far in 2013.
Stanford’s one loss in their past 22 home games was versus the then-No. 7 Oregon Ducks in 2011, and the vast majority of the Cardinal’s home wins in that span have been by three or more touchdowns. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re unlike any other team in the conference in terms of style, personnel and scheme, and they boast underrated athletes that make plays and avoid mistakes.
They’re ranked No. 5 for good reason — because they’ve earned it, and they’re truly that good. When watching video of them, they show that they hold blocks well and consistently, including their receivers and backs, they’re sound fundamentally in all areas, which helps them hide any weaknesses, and they appear to never be out-coached. To make matters worse for the Huskies coming into the game, Stanford’s quarterback, Kevin Hogan, is closer to being Andrew Luck — the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft — than he is Josh Nunes.
Nunes started at CenturyLink Field last fall when Washington upset Stanford 17-13. He completed just 18 of 37 passes for 170 yards, and threw an interception. The visitors were 5-for-18 in converting third downs. Hogan is significantly better than that.
Stanford was ranked No. 10 at that point, and they are even better in 2013. Needless to say, it’s going to be a difficult task for head coach Steve Sarkisian to come home with a victory.
But, it’s possible, and not only in long shot form.
The first obstacle for any team facing Stanford is the play up front, on both sides of the ball. The Cardinal can wear down opponents and cruise to second-half victories. They did it under Jim Harbaugh and they are doing it, perhaps even at a higher level, under head coach David Shaw. The Huskies, however, may have a recipe to counter the Cardinal’s physicality, just as Stanford has been able to split with the title-contending Ducks the past four years.
Despite the lack of production from the quarterback in last year’s matchup, Stanford lost that game to Washington because they didn’t win the game in trenches. The Huskies held the Cardinal to 65 yards rushing and 2.3 yards per carry, and Bishop Sankey rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown. Sarkisian’s Dawgs know they can compete with Stanford’s brute, and if they can hold their own on both lines again UW is likely to be able to score enough to stay in the game, and perhaps steal one in Palo Alto.
When UW has the ball
There’s no question the Huskies will try establishing the run with Sankey and Jesse Callier, but you can be sure Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason is well aware. If Mason’s crew is able to slow down the first-down gains, the onus will be on the Huskies’ offensive line to protect Keith Price long enough to get No. 1 wide out Kasen Williams and star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins involved more than in the first four games.
Look for Sarkisian to work in some formations and/or play calls that we’ve yet to see this season, and if Price gets into a rhythm the playbook will grow exponentially. Jaydon Mickens is the team’s leading receiver with 21 receptions, but Kevin Smith has been the most consistent threat down the field. Rookie John Ross, who may be the fastest player in uniform Saturday night, could make a difference in the return game as well as the passing game, and the Huskies will need big plays from their skill positions.
Turnovers and costly penalties will play a roll for the Huskies. They enter the contest the most penalized team in the FBS, but have taken care of the ball well in 2013.
Defensively, Stanford’s front seven is among the very best in the country, led by senior linemen Josh Mauro and Big Ben Gardner, and linebacker Trent Murphy, also a returning senior. Stanford runs a 3-4 defense, the first such scheme the Huskies will have faced since last season.
Key Matchup: UW receivers vs. Cardinal defensive backfield
Washington’s one potential impact advantage is with their athletic receivers, including tight end Seferian-Jenkins, versus Stanford’s defensive backs, who are sound but can be beaten, as Arizona State showed two weeks ago. Mickens, Smith, Williams and Ross all are candidates to come up big, and Seferian-Jenkins is always the No. 1 threat in the red zone.
When Stanford has the ball
Hogan is mobile and accurate and has two standout weapons in Ty Montgomery and David Cajuste. Cajuste lines up all over the field as a 230-pound hybrid, but you can bet the Huskies defense will see plenty of the ogre package — three tight ends and two backs — a formation from which they can throw to one of the tight ends off play-action, or pound the ball with Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson.
Hogan is terrific on third downs with his feet, too, and the Cardinal have avoided third-and-long scenarios for the most part this season. If the Huskies want a chance Saturday, they’ll have to hold down Stanford’s offense when they force third down and long.
Stanford will not sway from their game plan, but early versus Washington State a week ago Hogan took some shots down the field. The Huskies’ safeties may be tested early with Cajuste adept at running the seam route and getting behind the linebacker. Defending this play could take the Dawgs out of their best run-stopping calls.
Key Matchup: Danny Shelton, NT vs. Khalil Wilkes, C
Shelton is the Huskies best run individual stopper, and if he can clog up the middle with some consistency, the Cardinal will be forced to run off tackle and to the outside more often, which is not their strength. Such an approach plays into Washington’s own strength — speed — with the likes of linebacker Shaq Thompson and safeties Sean Parker and Greg Ducre capable of run support from sideline to sideline.
The Cardinal need to have success running through the ‘A’ gap to set up their passing game. Without it — they weren’t able to do it a year ago in Seattle — they become a bit more defendable, exposing their one possible weakness on this side of the ball — limited big-play options. This can especially be beneficial to Washington if they find a way to take the lead in the second half.
Washington doesn’t have to win the turnover battle in terms of raw numbers, but they probably will have to come out ahead in terms of impact turnovers. And the most penalized team in the nation has to avoid wiping out key gains on offense and prolonging drives with penalties when they get the Cardinal to third down and long.
A lot of things have to go right for the Huskies to upset the Cardinal on the road, but nothing completely crazy has to occur for them to play their best game yet and come away with the upset. They do, however, have to buck the recent trend weighing down the school since 1994.
The Huskies have just one win versus top-5 teams since they ended Miami’s 58-game home winning streak 19 years ago, and they’ve dropped seven straight road games versus ranked opponents — all but one of those by at least three touchdowns.
1090 The Fan’s Anthony Dion has already predicted a Huskies victory.
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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