Stanford (2-2, 1-1 Pac-10) at Washington (0-3, 0-1 Pac-10)
Sat. Sept. 27, 7 p.m. PT
Last year: Washington 27, Stanford 9. Stanford allowed Washington 31 first downs and 539 yards, stats teams usually parlay into 45 points, not just 27. The Card gained just 253 yards, while Washington managed 388 on the ground alone, 255 of them from Louis Rankin. It was the low point of the season for Stanford.
Stanford this year: The Card are 2-2, squeaking past Oregon State, being blown out at TCU and Arizona State, and then, last week, struggling with the pass attack but holding down San Jose State, 23-10. Two dichotomies emerge: the Card are 0-2 on the road and 2-0 at home, but are also 0-2 against top-25 caliber teams and 2-0 against the rest.
Washington this year: The Huskies were smoked by Oregon, 44-10, and Oklahoma, 55-14, but took BYU to the wire in a 28-27 contest memorable for Jake Locker's personal foul for excessive celebration pushing Washington's final extra point back 15 yards. A miss there proved the final margin. The Huskies have given up 42 points per game, but they've played the No. 3, No. 15 and No. 21 teams in the country.
Washington is entering a run of Stanford, at Arizona, bye, Oregon State and Notre Dame. There's no reason they can't win all four of those games -- and if so, their front-loaded schedule might make them one of the most underrated teams in the country right now.
We previewed Washington's offense and Washington's defense in the preseason, and if you want to read about individual Washington players or units, read those. This analysis doesn't repeat player-specific analysis, but instead uses those observations as a starting point, factors in what's happened thus far this season, and makes some educated projections about what we can expect Saturday.
When Stanford has the ball:
In the air:
Stanford is throwing for just 123 yards per game, while Washington is allowing 307 per contest. Assuming the world doesn't stop its rotation when the two units meet on the same field, something has to give. For the Card, Tavita Pritchard hasn't displayed the arm strength to test opposing defenses down the field, and has lacked the decisiveness and accuracy to run effectively the short-passing West-Coast style attack his coaches have drawn up. Still, he's been scrappy and does enough on his feet -- and Stanford's 2-2 right now.
For Washington, ever since star linebacker E.J. Savannah got kicked off the team in the preseason, we knew it was going to be a long season, and it is shaping into exactly that. (But to the pundits who are calling for an 0-12 UW finish: no way, no how, this team is still too good for that. I saw a Stanford team that finished 1-11; 2008 Washington is much better than that.) BYU scored 28 points and was 30-of-41 passing -- and that was the Huskies' best defensive performance of the season. I think Stanford's offense is closer to BYU's than Oregon's or Oklahoma's, no offense, and so I'm going to call for 28 Stanford points, and a 200-yard passing day out of the Pritchard/Luck/Forcier/Loukas hybrid.
On the ground:
Stanford's gaining 150 yards per game, while Washington allows 222. I think the most instructive results thus far this season are Washington-Oregon and Stanford-SJSU.
Oregon is not a bad model for Stanford, because they didn't have any passing attack to speak of in this game with their top seven (maybe an exaggeration, but it sure feels that way) quarterbacks all knocked out. Jeremiah Masoli was 9-of-17 and Justin Roper 7-of-11, good enough, but not what's going to decide a game. So Washington knew the run was coming, stacked the box for the run... and Oregon still ran for 256 yards on 44 carries. The Ducks, now that Jonathan Stewart has moved on to greener pastures, don't have an All-Pac-10 back and their offensive game plan -- pound the rock -- was entirely predictable. Still, Washington could not stop them.
The other good model is Stanford-SJSU, because the Spartans were the weakest defense Stanford's faced this season. (I throw out Oregon State because they clearly weren't as bad as they played in game one. That Stanford performance is an outlier.) The Card ran for 204 yards on the Spartans, 148 of them from Toby Gerhart and 40 from Tavita Pritchard, who's more mobile that many fans realize. Stanford's not quite as strong as Oregon, so the SJSU game seems the best baseline: I'll call for 210 rushing yards, giving Stanford 410 yards of total offense and 28 points on the scoreboard.
When Washington has the ball:
On the ground:
The Huskies are gaining 105 yards per game; Stanford's allowing 125. As I detail in my keys, Stanford needs to win this battle big-time if they're going to win this contest. They should be able to, because Stanford's front seven has been the strongest unit on the team.
Washington, meanwhile, is really reeling from the loss of
Louis Rankin, and is a textbook case of the old adage of if you
have three running backs, you really have none. My adage is if your quarterback
has more than double the rushing yards of anyone else on your team, you really
don't have a running back. David Freeman, Brandon Yakaboski (sweet name), Willie Griffin and even backup quarterback Ronnie Fouch all tried running, to no avail,
in Washington's last game against Oklahoma. Those guys have all had a bye week
to rest up and prepare (the bye being a big reason Washington is favored), but
none of them scare me. I think Stanford has enough to really stop this bunch,
and of Washington's projected 130 rush yards, I think at least
half come from Locker.
In the air:
Washington is throwing for just 200 yards per game,
welcome news to a Stanford secondary that, to put it charitably,
certainly hasn't improved since Scott Shafer has left, and is allowing
264 pass yards per game. The key here is to just minimize the bleeding. D'Andre Goodwin and Devin Aguilar aren't receivers that have 200-yard games inside of
them, so just don't give up anything ridiculous, don't miscommunicate and blow a
coverage, make Locker take 30 passes to put up his 250 yards. That's what I'll
call -- 250 passing yards for Washington, but the key for
Stanford is to make sure they come in dribs and drabs, and, by the way, an
interception or two wouldn't hurt. Kris Evans has two already this season and
Jake Locker's been known to force his passes, so maybe Evans, this year's
Bo McNally, can snag another.
Keys to the Game:
1. Can Stanford make Washington one-dimensional?
Both the statistics and common sense suggest Stanford's
biggest edge is in the rush game. The Card run for 45 more yards per game, while
Washington allows 97 more yards per contest -- that's a 142-yard swing. Plus,
Stanford has found the legit back it has been searching for in vain for years in
Toby Gerhart, while, after Jake Locker, the Huskies' next-leading rusher has 72
yards on the season. Locker doesn't have the weapons or the offensive system to
put up Texas Tech-like numbers through the air, so even if Stanford's secondary
plays as poorly as it did against Oregon State and Arizona State (and you would
hope that they've improved), he's still finishing in the 300-yard range.
Stanford should be able to score on these guys, so I don't think that would be
enough for Washington. Plus, good luck to UW converting on third downs and in
the red zone if they can't run it between the tackles. Bottom line, on paper,
Stanford's front seven should be able to shut down Washington's rushing
attack. If they can, I think the Card leave
2. Passing offense: Bueller, Bueller, anyone, anyone?
I'm borrowing from one of my favorite movies to say that the Pritchard/Luck/Forcier/Loukas argument is played out in my mind. Unless something dramatic happens, I don't think I'm going to write about the QB controversy anymore, because I think it obfuscates the real issue. The focus shouldn't be on which QB we happen to put under center, but the fact that whoever has stepped under center this season has been among the Pac-10's worst. So I don't care who steps up, but like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I'm just waiting for someone to rise to the occasion. Someone? Luck? Anyone? Anyone?
Washington allows 307 passing yards per game. I know their schedule has been great, and I know you therefore have to discount the stats somewhat. Still, coming into the season, I thought that the pass defense would remind of Stanford's 2006 pass defense, and nothing that's happened this past month has dissuaded me in the slightest. Stanford needs, needs, needs to do something in the air against this defense, not only to maximize its odds of winning, but also to set some sort of foundation for the rest of the season. I thought San Jose State would be the breakout game for the pass attack, but I was disappointed. Luckily, Stanford gets another chance. But if we can't light it up against Washington, my goodness, it's going to be a long season.
Washington by 4. Home-field advantage is typically thought to be worth three points, so these teams are considered pretty darn close on talent.
Stanford 28, Washington 27
The other website I write for, teamrankings.com, uses a fancy-schmancy mathematical algorithm to use stats to predict college and pro football games. The model has a pretty strong track record (hitting a crazy 61.7 percent of NFL winners last year at their highest confidence level), and predicting college football is a lot easier than the NFL, where teams are so much more closely matched. Anyways, the computer says Stanford's not only a favorite to cover, but they're the slightest of favorites to win outright. That computer is a lot smarter than I am, so sounds good to me too.
Locker gets his 300 total yards but the rest of the rush attack manages only 50, so that the final yardage margin is 410 to 380 in Stanford's favor. Stanford kind of improves in the passing game if you squint hard enough through those Cardinal-colored glasses, but really, it's Toby up the middle, Toby up the middle, Toby up the middle, as a huge ground day is the difference in the fourth quarter. Oh, and Washington fans curse the 28-27 final that is the same margin as their loss to BYU.
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