After rolling through its first six games of 2011, Stanford football returns to the Farm this weekend for its biggest test so far. The Cardinal will face Washington, the first top-25 opponent on the squad’s backloaded schedule.
The No. 7 Cardinal (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) hasn’t been challenged on the scoreboard much this season — it’s blown out every opponent by more than 25 points — but the No. 22 Huskies (5-1, 3-0) present a balanced offensive attack that has them tied for the lead atop the Pac-12 North. Most of Washington’s surprising success can be attributed the quick maturation of quarterback Keith Price, who has already tossed 21 touchdowns to just four interceptions this season.
Price’s scorching start has him being consistently touted as one of the nation’s most underrated or overlooked talents, and Stanford head coach David Shaw said he was impressed by the redshirt sophomore.
“[Price is] good, he’s athletic, he’s accurate, he’s not just an athlete playing quarterback — he’s a good quarterback,” Shaw said. “He doesn’t always just run and take off and flee the pocket, he’ll buy some time with his eyes down the field just like you teach it.”
Price is the only quarterback in the Pac-12 with more touchdown passes than Stanford signal-caller Andrew Luck, and Shaw mentioned that he was a bit surprised with how fast the Huskies’ quarterback had become a force.
“We saw him last year and we knew that they were going to have something special,” Shaw said. “The question is always how long does that progression take for a young quarterback, and [Washington head coach] Steve Sarkisian has been able to speed that process up.”
Price’s ascent has led to comparisons to Jake Locker, his predecessor at quarterback, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans, but the Cardinal defenders insist that the task of stopping the Huskies’ quarterback will be different this year.
“[Price] is a different type of threat,” said senior safety Michael Thomas. “He’s definitely more consistent when he’s trying to keep plays alive and throw it down the field. [With] Locker, you knew he was trying to run.
Price isn’t the only weapon on an offense that scores 37 points per game, though, as he’s got a talented running back just behind him in junior Chris Polk.
Polk was touted as a dark-horse Heisman contender before the season, and is widely considered to be the second-best running back in the Pac-12 after Oregon’s LaMichael James. Polk has amassed 728 yards and three touchdowns on the ground this season, but also has two touchdown catches, highlighting his multitude of talents.
“[Polk] is an every-down, every-situation running back,” Shaw said. “He’s physical between the tackles, he’s got speed to beat you to the outside. I’ve seen them flex him out and motion him out to catch passes…over the years he’s progressively gotten better. You can’t put him in a box and say, ‘He just does this.’”
To defuse the Huskies’ offensive attack, both Shaw and the Cardinal defenders agree that the best way to stop Price is to cause sacks both with pressure up front and coverage downfield.
“I think it’s going to be very important because he’s an athletic kid with an accurate arm, and we can’t let him sit back there because he’ll pick you apart,” Shaw said. “Hopefully our coverage is tight enough to make him hold the ball a split second longer than he wants to so that a guy like [senior linebacker] Chase Thomas can get in there and get him on the ground. For these guys it’s going to take a mix of coverage and pressure. You don’t want [Price] to know what’s always going on.”
With the Huskies’ speed, Stanford will have to clean up some of the defensive mistakes that it got away with against a less-dominant Cougar squad.
“Unlike last week when we missed a couple sacks and guys probably got away from their coverage, we’re going to have to do a better job of staying with their receivers after they run their initial route because they’re definitely doing a scramble drill,” Thomas said.
For the Stanford offense, the challenge will be to get started fast after a lackluster first half against Washington State last weekend, especially against a Husky defense that allows the most passing yards in the Pac-12.
Luck said that the team expects a higher standard of play, particularly as the schedule ramps up with three games against one-loss teams in the next four weeks.
“The deeper you go into the season, you know you’re going to have to play better week to week,” he said.
Luck also mentioned that last week’s poor first-half performance left a bad taste for the Cardinal.
“I wouldn’t say people were upset and throwing tantrums, but there was a little sense of unfinished business and edginess to everyone,” he added.
After throwing for 338 yards last week, with 216 of them coming from the Cardinal’s triumvirate of talented tight ends, Luck will most likely once again rely heavily on passing to redshirt senior Coby Fleener and juniors Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz.
The trio, dubbed “Trees’ Company” by Fleener, credited the Cardinal’s persistence in the running game in their success last week, which will be challenged by a Husky defense that only allows 97 yards a game on the ground.
“I think it starts with the running game, in the first half we didn’t really get that going,” Ertz said. “But in the second half, we completed some long passes and got the safeties to move back, and I think that set up the run game which kind of got the whole offense going.”
Overall, the Cardinal said its biggest goal will be to finally play that “complete game” that has eluded it so far to this point.
“As far as style of play, I would say that we are close,” Shaw said. “We’ve played our best football in spurts — a quarter here, a half here. The coaches have been saying, ‘We’ve got it in you, now we’ve got to get it out of you.’”
Achieving that goal will be even more important, Thomas said, because with the first ranked opponent coming to town, there’s a feeling that the Cardinal’s season starts in earnest this Saturday.
“I can say that [our season starts now],” he said. “We took care of the things we needed to take care of to be where we wanted to be and we’re in a position we wanted to be, where we kind of control our own destiny within the Pac-12.”
Stanford and Washington face off Saturday at 5 p.m. at Stanford Stadium. Television coverage will be on ABC.