It's been hard to swallow the unbridled optimism of many of the Cardinal faithful this week, as they have looked down their collective nose at the 0-3 Washington Huskies. While it may be true that Stanford's rivals from the Northwest have fallen on hard times, history is a harsh reminder of how lopsided this matchup has been in recent years. Just two wins in the last 20 years should be enough to soften the cries of those who say that it will not be acceptable to just beat UW, but that Stanford must pound the Huskies in a blowout.
Much of the optimism derives from rash of injuries Washington suffered last week in their demoralizing 38-3 loss at Notre Dame. Starting fullback Zach Tuiasosopo and both starting wideouts, Charles Frederick and Corey Williams, are all out. Given the big numbers that opposing offense have put up the last two games against the Husky defense, Stanford fans have assumed they can run up the score as well, without the threat of a Washington answer on offense.
But there are a few factors to keep in mind with the UW offense that give pause:
- Quarterback - Gone is flailing junior Casey Paus, who was a woeful combination of inaccuracy and poor decision making under center the first three games. He was benched at halftime in South Bend to allow redshirt freshman Carl Bonnell to take charge. Bonnell had seen only the most token of action prior to the Notre Dame game, and he did not quite dazzle in that half of opportunities. But the gurus of the Seattle scene have been sky high on the 6'3" 200-pound athlete for quite some time. In fact, when a local radio show hosted the three top media minds on Husky Football for a preseason roundtable, Sports Washington's Chris Fetters, the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Ted Miller unanimously forecast back in August that Bonnell would be the top quarterback on the UW roster who would have the most snaps under center over the course of the season. The redshirt freshman fizzled in preseason camp and was third on the depth chart entering the season, but the Huskies are looking for answers after their first 0-3 start since 1969, and Bonnell holds the greatest promise at this time. It has become well known by now how mobile he is, with gifted feet and 4.5 speed, but he also has a fantastic arm. There is the potential for him to hurt Stanford by land or by air if he puts it together in a "coming out" game. This guy is no scrub, and at 21 years old he is not quite wet behind the ears.
- The Option - Even if pocket passer Casey Paus is on the bench and the Huskies' top two receivers are in street clothes, that hardly takes away from the most potent threat through the years of Washington Football: the option. Traditionally Stanford has lacked the team speed on defense to track and close on the quarterback-driven form of running attack, and the Cardinal have prepared nary a snap for the option prior to this week. There is the thought that Stanford's 3-4 defense could be better predisposed to stopping the option, given the speed and number of linebackers on the field. Jared Newberry on one side and Jon Alston on the other, plus the sideline-to-sideline mobility of former safety Kevin Schimmelmann. But the option starts with punishing blocking up front, and UW has size and power on their offensive line that will give Stanford trouble in their three-man front. Preseason prognostications said this OL would be the weakness of the Husky offense, but they have performed well to date and disproved the doubters. Then you look at the talented runners Washington has in the backfield, including sophomore Kenny James, who reminds some of Rashaan Shehee, with the slashing capability to take a run up the middle or outside for chunks of yardage. The weapons are healthy and in place to run wild against the Cardinal, which has happened far too often in prior meetings.
- Tight Ends - The unsung strength for Washington on offense coming into this game is their tight ends. Keith Gilbertson is not at all averse to lining up his duo of 280-pound wrecking balls tight on either side of the line to exert power. Joe Toledo is the more well-known of the two tight ends, but he has been forgotten by many outsiders because of injury woes. While that track record is long and undistinguished, few are commenting on the back-to-back performances he had coming into today. He is built like an offensive lineman but can catch the ball past the first down marker. Stanford's smaller linebackers may have a tough time covering him when Toledo is released from the line of scrimmage.
There is one more thing to say about the UW offense vs. Stanford defense battle we should expect today. Don't get too caught up in the option hype, despite what I wrote above. While it is a viable weapon that could be unsheathed by Gilbertson today, there is a track record of the Husky head coach that argues he won't go heavily down that path. Gilby is a man who carries strong convictions in his offensive philosophy and believes you make your personnel execute that plan, rather than retool your playbook helter skelter as your depth chart changes. Though Bonnell has much greater mobility than Paus, it would be an uncharacteristically radical move for the head Husky to run option all game against the Card. I rather expect that the option will be one arm of the machine put on the field, as part of a more varied attack scheme.
Moving to the other side of the ball, Stanford has high hopes to score and move the ball against the Washington defense. After the Northwest nemesis has been plowed for a very consistent 36 points per game (35 vs. Fresno State, 37 vs. UCLA and 38 vs Notre Dame), a surging Cardinal offense should have similar success, right? Not so fast. One expectation by fans is that Stanford will be able to have their strongest running game of the year, after what they saw Maurice Drew do two weeks ago, but few college football observers could confuse any of the Card's backs with that UCLA wunderkind. Moreover, there is a school of thought that says Washington's big plays they yielded to the Notre Dame passing game are not typical of their defensive abilities. After getting ransacked by Drew and UCLA the previous week, and positing that Irish tailback Darius Walker could present a very similar running threat, some observers have hypothesized that the Washington defense was too focused on stopping the run. Those big Notre Dame scores came primarily from rollouts and play-action, as Husky defenders were caught peering too closely over the line of scrimmage. The Washington secondary is in fact supposed to be a strength of their defense, including senior cornerback Derrick Johnson, was was the masked man that picked off quarterback Trent Edwards late in the fourth quarter in Seattle last year to close down the Cardinal comeback
The good news is that Stanford has a confident offensive package put in place this week. In particular, Edwards told The Bootleg two encouraging factoids. The first is that as he watched the tape of the UW-ND game, he had a number of plays that he picked from Stanford's playbook that he felt could have great success against the Husky defense. In a completely parallel process, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit came up with several of the same plays as he scouted the film. Both the coach and player shared a big smile when they saw the overlap in their thought process, which at the very least suggests a cohesive plan in place. The second note is that Edwards called this the best game preparation he has experienced in his young college career, giving him more confidence in his ability to execute this week's plan than he has had in any prior game. After watching what Edwards did last week against the vaunted USC defense in the first half, you can only wonder what he may have in store this afternoon.
We expect that Washington will stack the line of scrimmage and put more pressure on the young Stanford offensive line than we have seen them attempt in their previous three contests this year. Until it is proven that the Card can make a defensive coordinator pay for a compacted front, expect Washington to bring heat. The Huskies do have a young defensive line, starting three underclassmen, but senior Manase Hopoi is a beast at 6'4" and 290-pounds with a burst, and freshman Jordan White-Frisbee is a freak at 6'6" and 330 pounds, pushing from the outside and interior of the line, respectively. In the linebacking corps, watch for weakside LB Joe Lobendahn, who has an energy and sideline-to-sideline speed that reminds of Coy Wire. He has also been Washington's most consistent linebacker to date, as well.
On special teams, we are uncertain of the potency of UW's return game. Charles Frederick was a game-changing force in that arena, earning Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Year honors in 2003, but he is replaced by Anthony Russo, who we have seen little from to date. Locals in Seattle call him a breakout threat in waiting, but Stanford probably has the bigger axe to swing in T.J. Rushing and David Marrero. The way the Card punting game has been going of late, Stanford should gain advantages in field position, given the very disappointing showing to date from Washington's Sean Douglas.
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