Game Preview: Washington at Stanford

Let's be honest: Stanford's schedule the first half of the season has had more cupcakes than your average bakery. The combined record of the Cardinal's opponents thus far is 14-24, with Stanford's biggest win to date is over Washington State. Stanford hasn't just been winning, either—it's been winning big, with victory by at least 26 points en route to a 6-0 record (4-0 in the Pac-12).

All that could change this weekend, as the No. 8 Cardinal welcomes a resurgent Washington squad to the Farm. The No. 25 Huskies are 5-1, and out for revenge after last year's 41-0 beatdown in Seattle. A victory for Stanford would add some much-needed credibility to its strength of schedule and reverse its recent slide in the polls (not to mention help fix its unpopularity with the BCS computers). On the other side, if Washington can notch the upset, it would announce the program's return to national relevance and go a long way towards validating head coach Steve Sarkisian's rebuilding plan.

The Bootleg has you covered for this week's matchup, the third straight sellout at Stanford Stadium as alumni return to Stanford for homecoming weekend. Read on for my keys to the game, and check back on the forums on Saturday for quarterly updates from the press box at the stadium.

Last time out: Stanford is coming off a 44-14 victory over Washington State in Pullman, a game featuring the slow start and strong finish that has become this season's default modus operandi in the 650. Sure enough, the Cardinal held a thin 10-7 lead over the Cougars at halftime, but pulled away in the second half, despite the return of injured Cougs QB Jeff Tuel. The Huskies, meanwhile, are coming off a blowout of their own, demolishing Colorado last weekend at home, 52-24. Like the Cardinal, Washington lacks a signature win—its three conference victories have come over lackluster California, Utah and Colorado squads.

Quarterback watch: Though star Stanford quarterback and future No. 1 NFL Draft pick Andrew Luck gets a lot of the Heisman hype, Washington QB Keith Price has quietly been putting together a pretty strong season as well. Despite 2011 being Price's first season as UW's starting quarterback, he currently ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and leads the conference with 21 touchdown passes. While Luck remains the better quarterback—he leads the conference in passing efficiency and is third in passing yards per game—it will be interesting to see how Price fares against Stanford's secondary.

Injuries continue haunting defense: Stanford lost another defensive leader last week, as safety Delano Howell is out for this weekend, "working through things" with an unspecified hand injury. Howell is one of the unit's more vocal leaders, and was helping fill the void left by the loss of Shayne Skov for the season to a knee injury. Fortunately for the Cardinal, Howell will eventually return this season—he is being evaluated on a week-to-week basis. Devon Carrington, who has been part of a rotation in the defensive backfield all season, will take Howell's place as the starter this weekend.
"Devon came in as a freshman and it took a while to get up to speed, to play at the speed we needed him to," said head coach David Shaw on Thursday. "This entire year, he's been fast and physical."

Owusu back in action: Wide receiver is one position where Stanford doesn't have great depth, so it's a relief for Cardinal fans that wide receiver Chris Owusu will most likely be back in action on Saturday. Owusu sat out most of last weekend's game against Washington State, suffering concussion symptoms after a first-quarter hit. If actions speak louder than words, then Luck also share the same concerns about his wideouts, as many of us talking heads (myself included). The only wideout to make a catch last weekend was Griff Whalen—all of Luck's other completions went either to his running backs or his tight ends.

Big test for Stanford run defense: Washington brings one of the conference's best running backs to the table in Chris Polk, and he will present the strongest challenge yet to Stanford's run defense. The Cardinal lead the Pac-12 in that category, yielding just 59.5 yards per game to date. Meanwhile, Polk is second in the conference in rushing, averaging over 121 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry. Something is going to have to give, and it is an open question on whether the Skov-less Stanford front seven is up to the job of containing Polk.

Prediction: Though the Huskies may be ranked, it's hard to forget that they barely escaped Eastern Washington in the season's first week and then got smoked by Nebraska. It's unlikely that the Cardinal will be able to steamroll Washington the way it did its first six opponents, but it's also hard to imagine the Huskies hanging with Stanford for four quarters on the road. Look for the Card to again start slow and finish strong, burying Washington by three touchdowns.
Final score: Stanford 45, Washington 24

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