Learning from the Loss: Look Back at the Keys

There's still no question that Stanford is physically better equipped than Washington. Dynamics of Thursday's 17-13 debacle even highlighted the Cardinal's advantage, which ended up wasted. That's what makes the setback particularly frustrating: the talent and the muscle was present, but the cohesion and organization was not.

Here's a look at how the Cardinal can improve moving forward, using grades to last week's game keys as a guide.

Key No. 1: Set up the physical advantage
Grade: F

As was established before the game, Stanford had more than enough horses in the stable to cruise to victory in Seattle. It was just a matter of feeding and grooming these stallions so that they would be in position to unleash 2011-like hell on Washington. Andrew Luck did a masterful job in this regard a year earlier; it would be up to the coaching staff and Josh Nunes to provide a solid encore in tougher road conditions.

Both failed miserably. The porous Washington defense and its light linebacker corps was never put under the kind of excessive physical strain that had made it break in the past. In last season's 446-rushing yard shellacking, Stanford dizzied the Huskies early with various creative ground looks, including an effective first possession 45-yard reverse to Chris Owusu. The Cardinal sliced and diced their way downfield, utilizing six different ballcarriers to set up the knockout punch: a never-ending tidal wave of Power.

This offensive creativity vanished at CenturyLink Field while Justin Wilcox's Washington defense took the lead in flashing diverse looks. Stanford's entire formation frequently scrunched together, eliminating the horizontal speed threat of a reverse. The Huskies were rarely forced to respond to a Cardinal set-up by spacing out, and Stanford only forced the issue by turning to Kelsey Young once. A penalty eliminated that single outside pitch to the speedster. The play was never called again, joining third-string quarterback Kevin Hogan's five-yard sweep as the only true wrinkles shown in the Stanford game plan.

Nunes' inability to deliver in the short passing game eliminated yet another Stanford threat. Suddenly, physically undermanned Washington, overwhelmed by various attacks last season, had only a couple different Stepfan Taylor run options to worry about. The Cardinal mass advantage up front was great enough to churn out production early on anyway, as Taylor rushed for 46 yards on 11 carries in the first half. Still, that wasn't enough to wear down a Huskies defense that was reinforced by a loud crowd this time around. Stanford passed 18 times and ran only 15 times in the first half.

As a team, Stanford never established themselves in a way conducive to stepping on Washington's throat. They ended up averaging only 2.5 yards per carry by game's end. The Huskies' defensive creativity and hometown energy ended up winning out.

Moving forward, Ty Montgomery, Drew Terrell, or even Jamal-Rashad Patterson are all viable candidates to mix up the running game from the perimeter. Ricky Seale and Remound Wright both offer a change a pace from Taylor that can also help loosen up the over-aggressive run defenses that Stanford is facing (the Cardinal are only averaging 3.9 yards per carry on the season). The ultimate remedy to this problem lies with the quarterback. If Nunes' quick passing game can at least be upgraded to a decent level (or if Brett Nottingham provides decent play from the second string), defenses will have to shift to more vulnerable formations. This will be particularly important in two weeks at Notre Dame, as the Irish feature a front seven that's cut from the same cloth as Stanford's.

The bottom line is that the Cardinal must stay out of constant third down. They're converting a measly 30 percent on the season, down from about 50 percent in 2011.

Stanford is muscular up front, but the team's offensive potential is wasted if it's committed solely to "three yards and a cloud of dust" football. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman's San Francisco 49ers' 34-0 destruction of the New York Jets Sunday can be used as a blueprint. The Niners featured plenty of ground ingenuity and efficient passing, both of which set up the physical advantage.

Key No. 2: Dominate the other line of scrimmage, too
Grade: B

Stanford's defense can be better, but the boys up front were still effective against Washington. In fact, there's a chance they would have been completely suffocating had their own offense given them just a shred of rest with some first downs. As is, their brawn manhandled a patchwork Husky offensive line in pass protection. Keith Price was battered and bruised, and it's a testament to this gutsy quarterback that he was able to hang in there and escape the rush enough times to post passable numbers (19-37-177-1 TD-1 INT).

Shayne Skov (looking more comfortable every week), Trent Murphy, and Henry Anderson (who played his career-best game) each racked up seven tackles, while nickel back Usua Amanam was solid at the line of scrimmage with six stops.

Seven tackles for loss and Murphy's 40-yard pick-six pop off the defensive stat sheet, but Bishop Sankey's 20 carries for 151 yards propelled Washington. Even if his 61-yard fourth down touchdown carry to end the fourth quarter is taken away (the Cardinal looked surprised the Huskies snapped the ball), Sankey still posted a productive 19-carry, 90-yard effort. Not bad for Washington, considering the yardage came against the nation's (previously) leading rushing defense, whilst back-ups manned 80 percent of UW's offensive line.

The Huskies overcame their physical disadvantages up front by turning to what the Cardinal neglected on offense: creativity. A no-huddle attack and zone read hand-offs provided enough spark to eke out just enough production. But this was still a solid Stanford defensive effort that made the Washington offensive line look like it was made of tin foil. Thumbs up to Steve Sarkisian for finding a sneaky way to steal positive ground yardage, but a big thumbs down to the Stanford offense for failing to help its defense out.

Missed tackles in the secondary from Ed Reynolds and Terrence Brown hurt the Cardinal more than anything the team did wrong at the line of scrimmage. Of course, shoddy tackling was an issue for Stanford against Washington on a couple of occasions last year, too. But those miscues were well concealed by the team's 65-point offensive outburst.


Key No. 3: Score first
Grade: A

Stanford did indeed score first, and Jordan Williamson's kicking success was responsible for establishing this early edge, as predicted. But it all went for naught. Playing from ahead was supposed to allow the Cardinal to dictate offensive flow of the game on their own terms, but Stanford never did take over the contest.

Instead of trying to replicate their 446-yard rushing effort of 2011, Stanford spent much time unsuccessfully trying to pick on future NFL cornerback Desmond Trufant. Montgomery's rough day didn't help matters here, and the wheels quickly came off for an offense that relies upon physical "body punches." Despite leading for the majority of the game, it almost felt as if Nunes and Co. were playing from behind, especially considering that they passed nine more times than they ran (37-28).

Simply put, the Cardinal never found a way to play to their strengths in this one, even when armed with a lead. That must be figured out moving forward.



David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.


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