All things considered, the No. 10 Stanford Cardinal (5-1, 4-0 Pac-12) have to be pretty happy with where they stand right now, coming off a 56-point performance against UCLA and ranked in the top 10 for the first time this year. However, as all Stanford fans know, the team has faltered in moments like this. In 2013, the Cardinal lost a pair of road games to unranked Utah and USC while being ranked No. 5 in both instances. In 2012, coming off an upset over No. 2 USC, Stanford lost on the road against an unranked Washington team. As the Cardinal prepare to face Washington (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) this weekend, does this matchup have the makings of another momentum-stopping head-scratcher for Stanford? Why or why not?
Sandip Srinivas: Simply put, I don’t think it does. On paper, it seems like all the signs are there: Stanford hosts an unranked team that boasts the Pac-12’s best defense (Washington is allowing just 16.8 points per game), struggles to get momentum early and loses a low-scoring game. But that sells this Stanford team very short.
In that 2012 game against Washington, Stanford failed to score a touchdown on offense. It was quarterback Josh Nunes’ fourth career start, and the team was still figuring out how to adjust post-Andrew Luck. Now, Stanford is very sure of who they are, as everyone from David Shaw to Kevin Hogan has spoken of Stanford’s clear identity on the offensive end. The team is playing with resolve and purpose, and they’re getting to opponents early: Over the last three games, Stanford has outscored its opponents in the first quarter by a margin of 41-17.
For the last two games especially, it has seemed like almost an inevitability that Stanford will score when it gets the ball. Fans no longer hold their collective breath when the Cardinal enter the red zone, as Stanford has scored 20 touchdowns and 4 field goals in its 28 red zone trips this year. While the offense will certainly face a worthy opponent in the Huskies’ defense, with the way the team has been playing, it’s hard to see them being stopped.
While in years past, this may have seemed like a dangerous game (and not to say it should be taken lightly), I expect the Cardinal to come out strong and put up another tremendous performance.
Neel Ramachandran: Given Stanford’s recent history in similar situations, my heart beats a little faster in anticipation of the Washington game. However, like Sandip mentioned, the 2015 Cardinal football team possesses a sense of identity and maturity that it lacked in previous years, especially offensively. Kevin Hogan is playing at an altogether new level: His 170.8 passer efficiency rating is good for eighth in the country, over the likes of Cody Kessler and Jared Goff. Meanwhile, the offensive line — led by seniors Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy — is among the best in the country, giving up only eight sacks in six games, and has paved the way for the running back committee to average 5.9 yards per carry. And finally, speaking of the run game, a certain sophomore by the name of Christian McCaffrey has vaulted himself into the Heisman conversation, as he leads the nation in all-purpose yards.
All this has been enough to start attracting attention to the Cardinal offense, which has in recent years been tremendously overshadowed by its stifling defense. Despite the fact that Hogan & Co. have been entertaining to watch, keep in mind that none of the offense’s success has come against legitimate defenses (the only top-50 defense Stanford has faced this year was Northwestern, and we all remember how that went). Thus, with Washington currently in the top-20 in scoring defense, I don’t expect the team to put up the gaudy numbers that have become typical of this season. Instead, the focus should return to the Cardinal defense, which has played extremely well despite receiving little attention.
Washington’s offense is struggling: Barring a 49-0 blowout of FCS opponent Sacramento State, the team is averaging 20 points per game, and put up only 20 against Oregon, the 111th best defense in the country. To make matters worse for the Huskies, freshman quarterback Jake Browning is listed as questionable for the game, as he exited the Oregon game late with a shoulder injury. His backup, K.J. Carta-Samuels, threw a pick on the second of his two passes to seal the game. Given these factors, I don’t see the Huskies coming anywhere near pulling off an upset. Stanford’s defense will shut out the UW offense; meanwhile, while the offense won’t score over 40, it will do more than enough to give the Cardinal an easy victory.
Vihan Lakshman: The two young grasshoppers above me make compelling points, and let me elaborate by telling you a story of a not-so ancient creature capable of inducing high blood pressure at will: The Cardiac Cardinal.
The 2012 and 2013 seasons saw Stanford advance to consecutive Rose Bowls for the first time since the ‘70s, but Cardinal fans endured an uncomfortable amount of heart-bursting finishes along the way. Wins against Arizona in 2012 and Oregon, Oregon State and those same Huskies in 2013 could have easily gone the other way. Stanford loved to flirt with the edge of disaster, and eventually fate caught up with the Cardinal in the form of inexplicable losses.
But this year Stanford has been blowing out Pac-12 opponents left and right and hardly resembles those Cardiac Cardinal squads that allowed teams to linger late into the game. This year’s version of the Cardinal offense has finished drives with clinical precision, picked up first downs and, perhaps most importantly, taken care of the football. Washington certainly has a strong chance of pulling off this upset, but it will likely require near-flawless execution on its part as opposed to a head-scratching performance from Stanford, who has flashed nothing but consistency after the first 90 minutes of the season.
Could the Cardinal conceivably lose this game at home to an unranked, but talented UW squad? Absolutely — we saw how a strong defense in Northwestern could knock Stanford off of its rhythm and Washington might be even stingier. Moreover, any team coached by Rumpelstiltskin in a baseball cap, a.k.a. Chris Petersen, demands the utmost respect. However, I don’t see a potential upset stemming from Stanford simply forgetting to show up to play; it will require a heroic, but certainly realistic, performance from the Huskies against a team that bears little resemblance to the Cardiac Cardinal of old.
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu, Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.