USC is gone and now Stanford hits the road for the first time under new starting quarterback Josh Nunes. How will the Cardinal respond? Going on the road with a first-year starting quarterback is never easy; even Andrew Luck was only 3-3 away from Stanford in 2009 during his redshirt freshman year. Tonight’s Washington game provides a key first road test to gauge how good Stanford really is. The following five matchups will be the keys in deciding this crucial game.
Stanford’s power running game vs. Washington’s front seven
The easiest thing Stanford can do to take the pressure off Josh Nunes is to attack Washington’s weakness with the Cardinal’s main strength, its running game. Washington on the season has allowed 4.5 yards per rush, and that includes serious deflation from a subpar Portland State attack.
To make matters worse, the Huskies are severely undersized at linebacker, an edge that Stanford should be able to exploit with its jumbo packages. Washington’s four linebackers average only 220 pounds, and though the Huskies’ linemen are, well, husky, at almost 280 pounds on average, Stanford has the edge in the numbers game.
Look for Stanford to try to wear down Washington’s front seven and start gaining 5+ yards per carry on power by the fourth quarter.
Stanford secondary vs. Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington’s star tight end, is made straight from the Harbaugh mold. Standing 6 foot 6 and 266 pounds, Seferian-Jenkins presents serious matchup issues against any defense, and it’s showed already in 2012. Seferian-Jenkins has led Washington in receiving yards in all three games of the season thus far.
This is where the Stanford defense’s practice against Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo pays off. Stanford has looked good against touted tight ends so far in 2012, including holding USC’s tight-end tandem to only 39 yards. Look for physical play on Seferian-Jenkins both up front and over the top to keep the basketball star in check.
Josh Nunes vs. crowd noise
Huskies fans are known to be rabid, making Husky Stadium a perilous place to play every year. This season, due to renovation, Washington plays its home games at CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks, a stadium designed to be as loud as possible. Now give Husky fans a Thursday night game against a Stanford team that has dominated UW over the past two seasons, and it’s a recipe for frenzy.
How will Josh Nunes respond in his first road game as the starter? He’s had serious trouble getting plays off in time in front of a quiet road crowd, so there are very legitimate concerns with the crowd noise. Nunes needs to buckle down and focus like he did in the fourth quarter against USC all game long, or Stanford’s undefeated run could come to a loud and unceremonious end.
Stanford pass rush vs. Keith Price’s mobility
Stanford’s pass rush has been spectacular as of late, and with Washington’s injury-ravaged offensive line up next, it’s hard to imagine the rush slowing down this week. However, just generating pressure won’t be enough to bring down Washington quarterback Keith Price. Price moves much better than Matt Barkley, whom Stanford abused two Saturday, and that presents a very different challenge.
The last time Stanford faced a fairly mobile quarterback<\p>–<\p>San Jose State’s David Fales<\p>–<\p>the defense struggled to bring the quarterback to the ground. Fales did an excellent job extending plays and found open receivers after moving both inside and outside the pocket. If Stanford allows Price to do the same, it could get ugly fast.
Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo vs. undersized Washington secondary
Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo were huge against USC, combining for 118 yards including Zach Ertz’s game winning 37-yard touchdown grab. For Stanford to be successful, look for that to continue against Washington’s undersized secondary.
None of the Huskies’ four starters in the defensive backfield are above 6 feet, except when Washington brings in star true freshman nickelback Shaq Thompson, who still stands only at 6 foot 2. Zach Ertz (6 foot 6) and Levine Toilolo (6 foot 8) will have a huge size advantage no matter whom Washington lines up against them.
If Stanford can get the running game going at all, Ertz and Toilolo should have a field day deep on play action, providing the offensive firepower needed to win this game.
Sam Fisher has his own ritual to prepare for the crowd at CenturyLink, involving cymbals, Adele and wasabi. If you, like the rest of us, would like to learn his methods, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.