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Football roundtable: Can Cardinal offense overcome Huskies defense?

Stanford alumni Taijuan Thomas (6), and current seniors Brandon Simmons (2) and Bobby Okereke (40) celebrate a successful kickoff coverage last season verus Washington. Special teams and defense will be huge for the Cardinal this year in a difficult game against a No. 9 ranked Washington team. (SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford football suffered its third loss of the season to Washington State last week in Pullman. The offense struggled to generate any movement but now have a short week to play Washington at home this Friday. King Jemison, Alejandro Salinas and Ariana Rollins discuss Washington’s defense and the Cardinal’s passing attack and defense.

Washington now has the best defense in nation in terms of yards allowed per game. Is this a product of its weak schedule, or will Bryce Love and the Stanford offense be stifled like it was in Pullman?

King Jemison (KJ): Washington’s defense is legit, despite its weak schedule. They have a really strong core of linebackers that have the potential to eat up any run game, and its defensive line almost always controls the game. Last year, Stanford’s offensive line was overwhelmed by the Huskies front-seven, and though there are a lot of new faces up front for both teams, the Cardinal tunnel workers’ union will need one of their best performances of the season in order for the offense to get anything going. If Stanford plays like they did last week, they will struggle to score a single touchdown against one of the best defenses in college football.

That being said, the Cardinal have another gear offensively than we saw against UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon. KJ Costello should try to run the offense at the fastest tempo possible to force the Huskies into some alignment mistakes. When Stanford slows down and tries to use up clock, that’s when the wheels come off offensively. Also, Bryce Love needs to be at full strength, so he can stay on the field for more plays than last week. His comments post-game and throughout the week would seem to indicate that David Shaw wants to unleash the passing game more this week. I expect to see an improved Stanford offense, but Washington will still make the Cardinal earn every yard.

Alejandro Salinas (AS): Despite a weak schedule, Washington’s defense is certainly one of the best in the country. You can expect the defensive line to come prepared to stop Bryce Love’s rushing game. Despite the fact the Huskies allow an average of only 91 rushing yards per game, a fast-tempo Stanford offense will likely fatigue the defensive line, helping Bryce Love find openings in the defense. David Shaw should also look to use a wide variety of the playbook, spreading the Washington defense. If Stanford hopes to see Bryce Love consistently break into the backfield, it’s going to have to find ways of fatiguing the defense and catching them off guard or out of position. A slow-tempo offense will only work in Washington’s favor, allowing it to cover the potent Cardinal offense.

Ariana Rollins (AR): Washington might not have played a ton of great teams this season, but they’ve been characterized by a great defense for the past couple of years, and this still holds true. Royce Freeman is No. 7 in the country in terms of rushing yards, but his game against Washington was the second time this season that he hasn’t come away with a touchdown. Oregon’s offense is admittedly not the greatest test of a defense, but to hold any team to three points still says something. Washington has proved it can defend against the run; Stanford now needs to prove they can diversify their offense.

KJ Costello was held to 105 passing yards on just nine completions last Saturday. What needs to happen for the Stanford passing game to be effective against a tough Huskies defense?

KJ: The simple answer is, they need to pass more often. KJ Costello had only 20 attempts against Washington State, and the vast majority of those were on third down or in desperation situations late in the game. Stanford will need more creative play-calling, so hopefully we will see David Shaw more committed to throwing the ball on first and second down. The Huskies might give up one or two long runs to Love, but, just like last week, it will be nearly impossible to generate a consistent run game against such a stout defense. It will be up to the passing game to get things moving.

We know that Costello has talent. Some of his throws are insanely perfect, and he’s engineered some wonderful drives. But this week, he will need more consistency. He has to hang in the pocket and take some hits, because Washington’s pass rush is going to be in his face for most of the night. Also, Stanford needs to spread the ball around so defenses can’t just key in on JJ Arcega-Whiteside. The Cardinal have a plethora of stud tight ends, but they’re not getting the ball enough. Trenton Irwin is an excellent route runner with some of the best hands in the college game, but he’s being underutilized. If Stanford can increase the tempo offensively and start airing it out a little bit against the Huskies, they can have success. The Cardinal just need to effectively use all their available weapons.

AS: Washington certainly has one of the best pass protection defenses, allowing an average of 150 passing yards per game, which currently stands as the third best in the country. Despite these statistics, Arizona State managed to complete 29 of 41 passing attempts for 245 yards in its upset against the Huskies. Stanford’s offensive game certainly has the potential to match or even exceed Arizona State’s performance, but KJ Costello will need to run an efficient, fast tempo and a varied offense if he looks to complete most of his attempts. Although long shots down the field make for great shifts in momentum if completed, the short, varied passing game will be key to Costello’s success, especially given Washington’s talented backfield.

AR: I’m excited to see what KJ Costello can do starting at home, especially given his past tendencies to spark the offense. However, we aren’t going to get anywhere without variety in play calling. That doesn’t just mean not giving it to Bryce Love all the time, that also means passing to the tight ends more and calling the option sometimes. Without variety, defenses have been able to guess what Stanford is going to do. Furthermore, when they can’t, they’ve pressured the offensive line enough that it’s broken down. When the offense works together as a unit, it looks good—but when it doesn’t, it just looks disjointed and ineffective.

The Stanford defense has undoubtedly been stout lately, and held Washington State to their second-lowest scoring total this season last week. Will the Cardinal hold against Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and the rest of the explosive Washington offense?

KJ: Washington’s offense can be stifled. They were held to just seven points against Arizona State, and Stanford has a much more talented defense than the Sun Devils. The key is the Cardinal defensive line. Harrison Phillips has been outstanding up front, as he’s having a season worthy of All-American consideration. But he needs more help against a strong and experienced Husky offensive line. Jake Browning can systematically tear the secondary apart if he has all day to throw. Stanford must generate a pass rush to force him into some hurried decisions. Also, Myles Gaskin is too good to consistently bring down in open space. The Cardinal have to slow him down at the point of attack. Too many times this season, the defensive line has let running backs slip through big holes and have left it up to the linebackers and secondary guys to make heroic tackles. Gaskin will gash Stanford over and over if the defensive line can’t corral him right away.

Stanford’s secondary was challenged by a creative and fast-paced Washington State air raid offense last week. Washington will present a similar challenge. Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid are studs, but after Alijah Holder’s injury, the rest of the defensive backfield is a little inexperienced. Browning is sure to test Holder’s replacement, Alameen Murphy, right away. The biggest key is not allowing Dante Pettis to get behind the safeties for a big play. If Stanford can keep everything in front of them against the Huskies, they will have a chance to slowly choke out a Washington offense that has rarely been challenged this season.

AS: If Stanford hopes to contain Washington, it’s going to come down to winning one-on-one matchups on the defensive line. As we saw in Washington’s game against Arizona State, Jake Browning has a difficult time passing the ball under pressure. He completed 17 throws on 30 attempts for 139 yards, scoring no touchdowns. If there’s any hope of stopping the Huskies offense, Stanford can’t afford to give Jake Browning all day to throw the ball. The defensive line will need to force Jake Browning to throw under pressure, while also containing Myles Gaskin at the line, rather than letting him explode into the backfield. If the defense can hold off Washington to a field goal, Stanford looks to be in good position, as Tristan Vizcaino has only made three of nine attempts from beyond 30 yards.

AR: Will we be able to successfully apply pressure with the defensive line? For me, that’s the make-it-or-break-it factor in our defense. Our secondary has performed well all season, and even with Alijah Holder out last game they still looked good. Peter Kalambayi and Harrison Phillips have been consistently good this season, and we need to apply that consistency to the rest of the line to be able to stop Washington on the line of scrimmage, instead of 12 yards past it. Overall, I’m less worried about the defense as a whole than I am about the offense’s production.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ariana Rollins at arianar ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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