To this day, the 446-yard ground devastation Stanford inflicted upon Washington last season is mind-numbing. In a record-smashing performance, the Cardinal rolled up over 10 yards per rushing attempt. They pounded the Huskies repeatedly. They found their opposition's breaking point and shattered it into a million pieces. The floodgates didn't only open; the entire dam ruptured under Stanford pressure. An unfathomable amount of rushing yardage poured out.
This much is fact: the Washington defense is known to quit if it's under excessive physical strain. Stanford has proven this the past two seasons, while Baylor (67 points in the 2011 Alamo Bowl) and LSU (a 41-3 physical annihilation earlier this year) have since ascertained as much. Even though Steve Sarkisian fired his defensive staff in the offseason, the Huskies are still being gashed to the tune of 4.5 yards per carry here in 2012. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox may have changed to a more speed-oriented 3-4 defensive scheme, but the second level of the unit is light, comprised of converted safeties. Washington linebackers Travis Feeney and Princeton Fuimaono average only 210 pounds. They're lighter than Ty Montgomery (who's muscular, to be fair, but still a wide receiver).
Remember what David Shaw said about Stanford's physical manhandling of USC's athletic yet relatively light linebacker corp two weeks ago: "It's just weight. It's mass. It's pure mass."
Well, the Cardinal's weight advantage against the defense's second level only gets more significant this Thursday. To be fair, the Huskies have two massive bodies on the line, concerning Shaw. Nose tackle Danny Shelton (317 pounds) and his backup Semisi Tokohali (340 pounds) have both improved since last year, but logic says Stanford has too much diesel to be stymied by beef at only one position. Continued improvement from interior offensive linemen Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes will be vital here, considering that graduated David DeCastro was an integral part of last year's dominance.
Set up the physical advantage
Given the weight advantages, it's fair to say the Cardinal have the capability of muscling Washington to their breaking point again. With a new quarterback making his first road start, though, the equation won't be that simple. The complexion of this matchup is unusual. The difference between a Stanford blowout and a Washington upset isn't as large as some analysts are making it out to be. Either a composed Josh Nunes puts the Cardinal in position to take advantage of their physical prowess, or the Huskies charge up CenturyLink Field with a fast start, fluster Nunes, and never allow Stanford to position itself to properly utilize its brawn.
Maybe the Cardinal can use the recent struggles of a team that they are linked to through former coach Jim Harbaugh as a warning. The San Francisco 49ers, heavy favorites on the road this past Sunday, were shell-shocked out of their ground-and-pound style and into defeat by Minnesota on the game's very first possession. The Vikings played the game on their own terms instead. If Keith Price-led Washington can dictate Thursday's tempo in a similar way, Stanford will be in trouble in a stadium known as the NFL's loudest. Just like USC, the Huskies want a track meet. Shaw's boys prefer a boxing match.
Over the past three meetings between the two schools, Stanford has racked up a season's worth of rushing statistics - 1,050 yards - against Washington. But each of those times, Andrew Luck's steadying presence was what put the Cardinal in position for the kill. In fact, Shaw considers No. 12's role in the 65-21 win over the Huskies last year a virtuoso performance - despite the fact that he threw the football only 21 times.
Now, Nunes must emulate Luck. Yesterday, Zach Ertz said that the new quarterback possesses many of the same play-calling capabilities that his legendary predecessor was famous for, but showcasing them in a loud, "blackout" Thursday night environment will be no gimme. Shaw indicated the Cardinal will rely heavily on non-verbal communication, primarily hand signals, to check down to the right play.
If Nunes succeeds in setting Stanford up and executing timely play-action surgical strikes to keep the Washington box loose, the Cardinal will decimate the Huskies again. If he doesn't, the Farm Boys will have to bank on their defense again, this time in hostile territory. Against some talented Washington playmakers in an electric atmosphere, that proposition can get dicey.
Dominate the other line of scrimmage, too
Even on the defensive front, though, Stanford enjoys a decided physical advantage. Four of the five Washington offensive linemen projected to start at the end of the 2011 season have either retired or are currently sidelined due to injury. This means that the Huskies' depleted, patchwork line must square off with a Stanford defensive front that leads the nation in run defense and has already shown an ability to exploit unstable fronts (see Cyrus Hobbi, Aundrey Walker).
Still, Price is the first truly mobile quarterback that the Cardinal have faced all season, and his massive tight end [ed: and former Stanford recruit] Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a bruising weapon downfield - though last year's leading receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar are gone. A raucous home crowd undoubtedly fueled Stanford's pass rushers against USC. They'll have to bring similar intensity to the road this time. On paper, the Cardinal's physical advantage is marked on paper, but it will need to hold up in hostile territory. The boys up front must prevent a passionate crowd from serving as a great equalizer.
Playing this game from ahead means that Stanford will compete within the realm of favorable running matchups. Playing from behind reverses the advantage: new quarterback Nunes would likely have to battle against senior stud cornerback Desmond Trufant and the rest of an athletic Washington secondary that features features true freshman stud Shaq Thompson. Trufant has already brought impressive pressure from the corner this year (3.5 TFL), but it can be mitigated, if not eliminated, by efficient ground production that doesn't leave Nunes vulnerable and looking to pass.
A quick start in this game seems like a potential tipping point (the Cardinal have been good at that so far this year; they've outscored opponents 34-7 in the first quarter). Kicker Jordan Williamson, who has missed his last four field goals, may be vital here considering the Cardinal's red zone woes. Shaw said that Williamson has had a great week of practice, especially as the coaching staff has forced him to practice setting up and kicking field goals from various distances under rushed circumstances. The goal has been to simulate game conditions.
A solid boot or two from Williamson could be necessary for the Cardinal to build a lead sufficiently large to keep the Huskies from sniffing any semblance of an upset. If Stanford can reach that point early enough, they can shift their focus to breaking Washington's will yet again.
David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!