Bye weeks can be a tricky thing. The break in the action allows a team to heal banged-up bodies, but it can also lull players into taking their feet off the pedal.
That’s exactly why head coach David Shaw stressed the importance of his players not resting on their laurels during the past bye week. Despite coming off an incredible 21-14 victory over USC, the Cardinal will face a different kind of animal tonight: its first road test of the season at CenturyLink Field, one of the loudest stadiums in the nation that boasts a crowd capacity of 67,000.
“You can’t linger,” said Shaw. “If you want to be good at something, you have to concentrate on the work. You can’t concentrate on the achievements and you can’t concentrate on the pats on the back.”
Playing in front of a raucous crowd tonight, No. 8 Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) will try to advance to 4-0 for the third straight season as it takes on Washington (2-1, 0-0) in a Pac-12 North matchup.
When the two teams met last year, Stanford’s running game, commanded by Andrew Luck’s masterful play-calling at the line of scrimmage, gashed the powerless Huskies defense for 446 yards on the ground, averaged 10.1 yards per carry and broke the single-game school rushing record in the process. However, Shaw and the players are expecting a much tougher resistance this time around.
“We don’t anticipate that happening again,” Shaw said. “We expect more of a balanced attack from us…[Washington] changed their scheme on defense. They’re physical and they have good size.”
Senior halfback Stepfan Taylor–named Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week for his remarkable 213 all-purpose yards, two-touchdown performance against the Trojan–looks once again be the reliable engine of the Cardinal offense. But the speedy junior Anthony Wilkerson, who has seen a considerable amount of action so far this season in the Wildcat formation, will sit out tonight due to a lower-leg injury.
Despite combining for just 24 yards on nine carries so far this year, running backs Remound Wright and Ricky Seale have earned Shaw’s vote of confidence as they attempt to effectively fill in for the injured Wilkerson.
“We only recruit complete backs,” Shaw said. “And [Wright and Seale] are complete back…They’re very good at pass protection and they can catch the ball. For those guys, it’s just about opportunities.”
Washington may have given up 247 yards to SEC powerhouse LSU in game two, but the Huskies defense isn’t short on talented playmakers. Among them is team captain linebacker John Timu, an up-and-coming sophomore who has recorded 18 tackles on the season and embodies Washington’s version of Shayne Skov in terms of vocal leadership.
“Their defense is everywhere on the field,” Taylor commented. “We have to be ready and be able to identify their guys so that we’re all on the same page. Their defense’s layout is kind of like our defense–how they move around in a lot of places and try to confuse you whether it’s three-down our four-down.”
Earlier this week Shaw expressed that the team needs to find a way to “incorporate” the wide receivers more into the offense. While senior Drew Terrell has caught two touchdowns on the season and while sophomore Ty Montgomery hauled in a catch to convert a critical third down early in the fourth quarter against USC, the two wideouts have combined for only 16 receptions and 185 receiving yards over the span of three games. It won’t get any easier tonight for Stanford’s top two wide receivers as they will have to contend with Washington’s Desmond Trufant, one of the premier cornerbacks in the conference.
The Cardinal can’t afford to leave any points on the field–especially not on the road–which means that placekicker Jordan Williamson must nail field goals when he’s called upon. After making five-of-six attempts in the first two games, Williamson came up empty-handed on all three tries against USC.
“The field goal is all about timing and technique,” Shaw said. “When he’s on, he’s as good as anybody in the country. When he’s not, then he’s not. He knows that. It’s all about consistency…He’s coming off a great week of practice. We’ve just got to make sure it transfers to the game.”
Mobile quarterbacks who can throw accurately on the run have often posed as a thorn in Stanford’s side. That being said, Huskies quarterback Keith Price threatens to become the latest containment problem for the Cardinal defense. Price’s ability to maneuver himself out of the pocket presents a tall order for even one of the nation’s top front sevens. Although the redshirt junior has gotten off to a sluggish start so far, his impressive statistics last season–3,063 passing yards along with 33 touchdowns–are indicative of his touted quarterbacking skills.
“The big thing is the defensive backs realizing that the average play is five or six seconds, but with this guy it might be seven or eight,” Shaw commented. “He’s the X-factor, and when a quarterback can make the defensive backs cover for three more second, that’s tough.”
Although the Huskies no longer have dangerous tailback Chris Polk, Price certainly won’t be alone in the offensive attack as he’ll try to find his dependable target, sophomore wideout Kasen Williams, throughout the game. The stingy Cardinal front seven, which has allowed only 41 rushing yards per game, hopes to shut down Washington’s ground game and bring the same fierce pass rush that it bombarded Matt Barkley with two weekends ago. Developing at a quick pace, the young, but disciplined Stanford secondary has also gained a tremendous amount of confidence after being able to keep Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, two of the best wideouts in college football, in check.
“With the front seven that we have, we know we have to uphold our end of the bargain as a defense,” said strong safety Jordan Richards.
With classes having started on Monday, Shaw imparted the importance of time management to his players. Taylor likewise commented that his teammates are not letting classes affect their “play on the field.”
“Bottom line, when it’s time for academics, there should be nothing else in the world that matters,” Shaw said. “And when it’s time for football, there should be nothing else in the world that matters.”
Fresh off a momentous upset over the Trojans, Stanford’s first road game against the Huskies has the makings of a trap game written all over it. Yet the players have shown so far that they are well versed in responding to adversity, an important theme that Shaw emphasized before the season began.
“We talked about [playing on the road] being our next step,” Shaw said. “Can we show the maturity necessary to play well on the road–taking care of the ball, handling the noise, realizing there’s going to be a lot of emotions leading up to this game, limiting our penalties? Can we still play smart and play our style of football? That’s our test.”
Stanford and Washington will square off tonight at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash. Kickoff time is slated for 6 p.m., with national television coverage on ESPN.