And when the Cardinal took over at the Washington 45 with 2:13 left in the game and the Huskies trailing 31-14, Stanford Head Coach David Shaw had seen enough. He called off the Card, running the ball and killing the game off when some coaches would have gone for one last dagger. But that’s not the Stanford Way. They’d rather be like Muhammad Ali, battering George Foreman and then never having to deliver that final punch as Foreman was on his way to the canvas.
Chris Petersen wants the Stanford Way to be the Washington Way. But it wasn’t to be on Saturday. The Dawgs were beaten the moment they walked through the tunnel, before a pass was made or a ball was kicked.
“Stanford, they kind of build it how you’d like to build it,” Petersen said. “They have big, physical guys. They’ve got old guys. There are enough guys that have played out there that there’s a good blend there. They play hard. I think Coach Shaw does a good job here building the program how it needs to be built.”
Let’s put together a quick check list of what a football program would ideally require to perform at a high level: Experience and depth at a vast majority of positions; an upperclassman quarterback; game-changing skill players; an offensive line that makes defensive coordinators wince; coaching continuity.
The Stanford Cardinal have all those things. Washington is developing all those things.
There’s a reason why the story of David and Goliath is a well-known sports parable; it’s the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is this; older, more-experienced teams have a field day over much younger counterparts. And this was on full display Saturday night.
Eighteen of Stanford’s 22 players in their offensive two-deeps are either juniors, seniors, or fifth-year seniors - thirteen on defense. The Cardinal have only two positions where their two-deeps are occupied by sophomores or younger, and one of those positions is their nickel back.
Compare that to Washington’s two-deeps - nine upperclassmen on offense and eight on offense. And that defensive list includes two players that didn’t play Saturday night; Joe Mathis and Brandon Beaver. Twenty-one of Washington’s 56 players listed on the official participation chart are sophomores or younger.
Of Stanford starters, 16 were listed as juniors or older. Washington had seven.
Youth was only one of the many obstacles placed between the Huskies and a win Saturday. They lost their starting quarterback, Jake Browning, and that’s never a formula for success when you’re road Dawgs versus a top-10 team.
Backup K.J. Carta-Samuels was thrown into the fire, and although he finished the game admirably Petersen admitted after the game that they weren’t going to go Air Raid from the opening whistle.
“I think he knows what he’s doing, but I think the first game against a good defense, we wanted to be fair to him,” Petersen said after the game. “We didn’t want to put our defense in a bad situation and have an untimely turnover or anything like that. You’re kind of playing that cat and mouse game a little bit.
“The first half was rough in terms of the game is different than practice. The second half, he kind of settled in a little bit. You can that he can throw the ball; he can make good throws. He really can. I was proud of him. I’m glad we left him in there to keep slinging it. He made some good decisions. We’ll analyze the tape and see exactly what he could have done a little bit better. It starts up front and kind of goes quickly to the quarterback.”
That early mentality resulted in Washington’s now patented slow starts (TM), with five-straight punts to start the game. They ran a total of 18 plays the first half, possessed the ball for 8:27.
But the building blocks are there. The Huskies, for all their offensive failures - and there have been plenty - didn’t beat themselves. They didn’t turn the ball over. They cleaned up the penalties. They played the field position game well; of Stanford’s 10 drives, they only started outside their own 25 twice, and one of those times was when they sat on the ball at the end of the game.
The Huskies made sure Stanford beat them - and they did. That’s what well-coached, experienced teams do.
“Washington is a very, very underrated football team, and I'm not just saying that because we won the game tonight,” said Shaw. “If you really watch the game, they're physical. I know Coach Petersen's doing a phenomenal job there.”
The Cardinal executed their game plan with Ginsu precision, knifing through the Washington defense and amassing 478 total yards. California is the only team to gain more yards against UW than Stanford, with 481 yards on 92 plays. The Cardinal did their damage in 20 less plays.
That is offensive efficiency.
And every time it looked like the Huskies had found an escape route to get Stanford off the field, the Cardinal made plays to maintain their momentum. Like an anaconda squeezing its prey to death, Stanford put the clamps on and used their brutal, physical style to wear down a game Washington defense already bruised and beaten up from their six-point loss to Oregon the week before.
“It’s a tough football team we played and they executed at a very high level in all three phases,” said Petersen. “When we can’t get anything going in the first half offensively it just puts too much stress on everybody else; it makes it a very hard game. In the second half we got a little something going, but they’re a good team that can answer right away, which they did and put us back on our heels. They’re a good football team."
“Down the road we’ll be a good football team but not tonight.”
But the fact that the Cardinal had to earn every yard of turf is a massive upgrade from Washington teams of the recent past. You have to go back to Steve Sarkisian’s second year to find another game where Washington ran only 45 offensive plays. It was against Stanford, and the Huskies lost that game 41-0.
Washington gained 231 yards of offense Saturday night. Five years ago against the Cardinal they had 107 total yards. And that was at Husky Stadium, and Stanford were ranked 13th at the time.
The Cardinal held the ball for 39:22 that day. Saturday night Stanford played keep-away for over 40 minutes. There’s not much you can do when you don’t have the ball, and that’s a key aspect of Shaw’s phone-booth offense. They lead the Pac-12 in time of possession, and despite the fact they run the ball 65 percent of the time, you would never know it if you looked at the total yardage gained. They’ve gained 1548 yards rushing and 1635 passing.
That is offensive balance. And ultimately that’s what keeps defenses on the field and off-balance.