By George Chen
For Stanford football, the easy part is over. The Cardinal hosted rival USC in week two, but sandwiching that Pac-12 showdown were cupcake home games against two teams that combined for 16 losses last season. Stanford has already faced a fair share of early obstacles — red-zone woes and offensive line problems — but they have all shown up in the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium.
Now comes the hard part.
Six of the Cardinal’s final nine games will take place on the road, and four of those contests feature currently ranked opponents. The Pac-12 may not be the SEC, but there are no shortage of hostile stadiums filled with rabid fans on the West Coast. The first place that comes to mind is, of course, Autzen Stadium. But if Autzen Stadium is the place where Pac-12 teams go to die, then Husky Stadium is the new place where Pac-12 teams go to die again.
The No. 16 Cardinal (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12), in search of their first conference win of the 2014 campaign, will kick off their grueling road schedule in Seattle on Saturday against Washington (4-0). Stanford’s kryptonite, the Steve Sarkisian-Justin Wilcox duo, may be gone, but one of the most respected coaches in college football, Chris Petersen, will be looking to earn his first signature win in his inaugural season with the Huskies.
— Stanford Football (@StanfordFball) September 25, 2014
In preparation for Saturday, the Stanford coaching staff has watched film of Boise State during the Petersen era, in addition to studying Washington’s first four games of the 2014 season. Head coach David Shaw was impressed.
“[Washington] has shown moments of absolute dominance on both sides of the ball, and moments where it’s not all quite together,” Shaw said. “It honestly sounds like a lot of good football teams around the nation. When you watch Washington playing at their best, they’re as good as anybody.”
What might be most scary about Washington is the fact that the Huskies have progressively improved each week. After scraping out a narrow victory over Hawaii and surviving a shootout against a respectable Eastern Washington team, the Huskies routed both Illinois and Georgia State by more than three touchdowns. Much to the dismay of other Pac-12 teams, the Washington players have adapted to Petersen’s new schemes and style of coaching at a rate faster than one might have expected.
The Huskies offense has started to click — Washington averaged almost 50 points in its last three games — but it is the play of their defense, especially the front seven, that could prove to be dangerous to the Cardinal on the road. Washington is ranked No. 1 in the nation in total sacks (19.0), with defensive tackle Danny Shelton leading the nation in both sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (9.5). His teammate at the buck position, Hau’oli Kikaha, follows in close pursuit with 6.0 sacks.
“Schematically, Washington is running what the coordinators brought to them from Boise,” said senior quarterback Kevin Hogan. “Reminds me a lot of what USC does defensively. Right now it’s kind of like a game of chess.”
Stanford’s offense has been uncharacteristically prone to coughing up the ball so far this season. Through three games, the Cardinal have committed nine fumbles and seven turnovers, a startling statistic considering that they turned the ball over just 18 times all of last season. Hogan and company will have to be extra wary of protecting the football because the Huskies defense comes into Saturday with the nation’s best turnover margin (plus-8).
But if there is a weakness in the Huskies defense that the Cardinal can potentially exploit, it is the young secondary. While Hogan was quick to praise the Huskies defensive backs and emphasized their talent over their inexperience, almost every team in the country would find it cumbersome to cover senior wideouts Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste on the same play. Cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker are both freshmen, and with Stanford’s loaded receiving corps and developing tight end group, the Washington secondary will have to either play its best game or hope that the pass rush gets to Hogan first.
On the other side of the ball, Washington still has plenty of weapons despite the loss of its deadly quarterback-tailback tandem of Keith Price and Bishop Sankey. Quarterback Cyler Miles, now in his first full season as the starter under center, has been running the Washington offense much more efficiently than he did last year when he came in to replace an injured Price. Though Miles still looks a bit uncomfortable in the pocket at times, he has yet to throw an interception this season.
Wide receiver Kasen Williams is a name that has given Cardinal fans nightmares the past two seasons. In 2012 at CenturyLink Field, Williams caught a screen pass and then made two Stanford defenders miss before scoring a 35-yard touchdown that proved to be the deciding factor in Stanford’s ugly 17-13 loss to the Huskies. The senior wideout also had his best game of the season against Stanford last year, hauling in five catches for 89 yards. With senior DiAndre Campbell and junior Jaydon Mickens joining him, the Huskies will look to challenge the Cardinal secondary on the outside.
“They’re explosive,” said fifth-year senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley. “They have guys at every position, specifically wide receivers, who can take it the distance every play. That’s something you see in almost every team in the Pac-12, but [Washington receivers] will be especially difficult to contain.”
Two years ago in CenturyLink Field, the noise was a key factor. This time around, Tarpley hopes that his team won’t give Husky fans a reason to get loud.
“Keeping the crowd quiet — that’s what we like to do,” Tarpley said.
Saturday’s game is slated for a 1:15 p.m. kickoff time, with national television coverage on FOX.
Contact George Chen at [email protected]