Washington is the first 2013 Stanford opponent that, at least on paper, is not hindered by a glaring weakness. Unlike the relatively one-dimensional San Jose State, Army, Arizona State, and Washington State attacks, the Huskies present offensive and defensive balance. Their quarterback Keith Price (72 percent completion rate) is second to only Kevin Hogan in Pac-12 passer efficiency. His 9.0 yards per attempt perfectly complement Bishop Sankey, who's leading the nation averaging over 150 rushing yards per game. Defensively, Washington has combined impressive discipline with "hair on fire" intensity (Tavita Pritchard's words) to surrender a nation-low 3.8 yards per play.
Stanford has its work cut out for Saturday night. If the Cardinal can address the following issues, though, they have the size and talent to notch another win.
Neutralize the Fire Hydrants
Size-wise, the Washington defense does not match up well with Stanford -- except at nose tackle. That's where 6-1, 327-pound Danny Shelton and his 6-foot, 334-pound back-up Lawrence Lagafuaina clog action. Those two guys are absolute fire hydrants, and their immovability forms the spine of the Husky defense. Three-sack master Hau'aoli Kikaha can do his job off the edge as a result, as can a trio solid linebackers. Princeton Fuimaono (team-leading 30 tackles), John Timu, and former five-star stud Shaq Thompson all swarmed Stanford's offense in the Huskies' 17-13 win last year.
For Washington, that stellar defensive effort started up front, where they replaced some of their usual starting defense linemen with some 330-plus pound beer trucks to combat Stanford's size. This helped the Huskies neutralize the Cardinal's rushing game. Meanwhile, Josh Nunes was unable to make Washington pay with his arm. The grisly end result: Stanford did not score a single offensive touchdown for the first time since a loss at Oregon State in 2007.
With Kevin Hogan at the helm, the Cardinal now have the ability to mitigate Shelton and Co.'s inside clogging potential. Washington's cornerbacks, both under six feet tall, are vulnerable to the Cardinal's large perimeter targets, particularly 6-4 receiver Devon Cajuste. The Farm Boys must take advantage of this and successfully throw the football to put the Huskies in pass defense mode. This can gas the massive bodies in the middle. With that accompished, Stanford's power running game will be in business: Washington's linebackers and defensive backs are built to combat smaller Pac-12 offenses, and not a pulling David Yankey.
Boise State (171 yards), Illinois (136 yards), and Arizona (199 yards) all ran the football with at least some success against the Huskies. Stanford's passing attack is more developed than any of those three teams, so a productive ground effort is certainly possible given well-orchestrated balance.
Hit the Blocks on Athletic Linebackers
Even if Stanford does indeed neutralize the fire hydrants up front, they won't be completely out of the woods. Fuimaono, Timu, and Thompson have established a formidable defensive second level, and their athleticism presents a challenge for the Cardinal's large blockers. This is not the same Washington team that last visited Stanford Stadium, the year an Andrew Luck-led juggernaut racked up a school-record 446 rushing yards against a pathetic defense. This Huskies' unit has played with tremendous gap discipline so far.
To square up this defense's smaller second level and feed it a serving of trademarked Farm physicality, Stanford's blockers must hit the right angles. Footwork will be essential on pulls, and timing will be critical on bubble screen plays that have seen right tackle Cam Fleming get out in space and take on nifty defensive backs. The Cardinal has the size advantage here, but can they put themselves in proper position to milk it? The inability to do so cost them dearly in Seattle last year.
Make Sankey and Price Hurt
The quarterback (Price), running back (Sankey), and top receiver (Kasen Williams) may all be the same, but Washington's offense is markedly different than the unit that faced Stanford in 2012. To begin, four of the five Huskies' starting offensive linemen missed last year's game versus the Cardinal. The Farm Boys' pass rush overwhelmed the purple and gold. Price performed poorly.
This year, Washington is healthy up front. They've surrendered only three sacks through the first month of the season. Sankey is churning out 5.8 yards per rush. An uptempo approach has added a new dimension to the Huskies' offense: They've run over 80 plays in each of their first four games.
Sankey, though, was forced to carry the ball a school-record 40 times in monsoon-like conditions last Saturday, and Stanford is the last defense a running back wants to face seven days after carrying the ball 40 times. There's a good chance the Cardinal will face a running back who's not completely fresh, and they'd be well-suited to hit him hard and often to suffocate Washington's rushing attack. If that happens, Stanford can unleash its horses after the quarterback (see last week's third quarter fury). That's when Price's currently pretty statistics can take a hit, both literally and figuratively.
Avoid a Taste of Your Own Medicine
Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is 6-7. He weighs 276 pounds. That is not a typo. Stanford is only used to seeing that kind of tight end size on their own team (where Luke Kaumatule weighs 'only' 265 pounds). Seferian-Jenkins can obviously create problems outside of the talented Williams, Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Smith receiver trio. As it was last year when Seferian-Jenkins finished with only two catches for 10 yards, the Cardinal's best solution will be to win the battle up front and prevent Price from having time to throw.
We're a long way from 2012, though. Both of these offenses are far more competent than they were back then. Stopping the weapons on both sides will be much more difficult this time around.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Washington 17
Bonus picture: This game has some extra meaning for Cardinal lineman Josh Garnett:
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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