By King Jemison
Before the season, Stanford football’s Week 10 road trip to Washington looked like one of the most important games on the Pac-12 calendar. The Nov. 3 showdown was set up to be a de-facto Pac-12 North championship game between two preseason top-15 teams. As late as Week 4, both teams were ranked in the AP Top 10 and seemed to be on a collision course that would decide the Pac-12’s College Football Playoff fate. Even a week ago at this time, most assumed Stanford-Washington would be a battle of ranked teams for Pac-12 supremacy. But then, Washington lost to Cal and Stanford dropped a heartbreaker to Washington State, leaving both the Huskies and the Cardinal out of the first College Football Playoff rankings and setting up Wazzu as the prohibitive division favorite. The Pac-12 is Mike Leach’s world, and Washington and Stanford are just living in it.
But despite the fact that Stanford-Washington is a battle of unranked three-loss teams, the game is still incredibly important for both squads. Washington actually still controls its Pac-12 destiny, since it won’t play Wazzu until the last weekend of the season, but one more loss would put any Husky Rose Bowl hopes in serious jeopardy. Stanford’s Pac-12 Championship hopes are nearly dead, but if they win out, the Cardinal will likely play in a significant bowl game with a chance to secure another 10-win season.
If Stanford is going to make the traditional David Shaw end-of-year surge, it has to start now.
And if the Cardinal want to make anything out of a thus far disappointing 2018 campaign, it all hinges on beating Washington. What that in mind, here’re the keys.
1. Do THAT again on offense.
All year, Stanford fans have been calling for the Cardinal offense to abandon their “run first” philosophy and start throwing it all over the yard, Mike Leach style. Sure enough, when facing the Washington State air raid attack, Stanford head coach David Shaw chose to fight fire with fire, employing a heavy “pass first” scheme that included 43 pass attempts and just 23 rushing attempts. The result, even in a loss, was magnificent. Junior quarterback KJ Costello finished 34 of 43 for 323 yards and four touchdowns, including three in the first half. Junior tight end Kaden Smith had nine catches for 112 yards and a touchdown, while senior wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside continued his record-breaking season with 10 catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinal running game also found more success, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, which was a nearly two yards per carry increase from their season average. Stanford racked up season-highs with 38 points and 443 yards in regulation. The lesson? Do that again.
Stanford must pass to set up the run against Washington. The Huskies have the eighth-ranked scoring defense in the country, surrendering just 15.2 points per game. Their pass defense is particularly stingy, as they allow just 171.7 yards per game through the air, but the fact remains that Stanford’s offensive line is not good enough to consistently generate anything in the run game against such a stout defensive front. Shaw and Cardinal offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard need to once again set Costello loose to throw it all over Husky Stadium. The passing game is Stanford’s greatest strength in 2018, and against one of the toughest defenses in the nation, the Cardinal must use that strength to have any chance at putting up points.
2. Bring out the bad Jake Browning.
Two years ago, Jake Browning led Washington to the College Football Playoff and finished sixth in the Heisman voting. He put up 43 touchdowns on the season and looked ready to become the best Pac-12 quarterback since Marcus Mariota. Flash forward to 2018, and Browning has just 12 touchdowns through eight games and was benched in the second half of an ugly 12-10 loss to Cal. In hindsight, the Huskies’ 24-7 2016 playoff loss to Alabama showed the warning signs of Browning’s critical weakness. Facing relentless pressure from the dominant Crimson Tide front seven, Browning wilted, throwing two key interceptions and generally running for his life all game. Now, that’s become the story for Browning; When he faces a strong pass rush, Browning seems more likely to throw it to the other team than his own.
That being said, there’s a reason Browning was a Heisman finalist two years ago and has been to two straight New Year’s Six Bowls. He has eight interceptions this season, but he’s also thrown for a Pac-12 best 8.65 yards per attempt. Browning can efficiently carve up a weak secondary, as shown by his 23 of 25 performance in a blowout win over BYU. Stanford’s pass defense is last in the Pac-12, giving up 275 yards per game. Though Gardner Minshew repeatedly picked on fifth-year cornerback Alijah Holder last week, Stanford’s struggles against the pass can’t truly be blamed on the secondary. It’s been all about the startling lack of a pass rush. Minshew had all day to throw last week, and so he became the latest in a long line of quarterbacks to have a career performance against the Cardinal defense (40/50 for 438 yards and three touchdowns without an interception). Browning could be next, or he could throw multiple interceptions and give the Cardinal an excellent shot at pulling off the road win. It all depends on the pass rush, although King’s Keys has said that pretty much every game.
3. Keep fighting.
This is the first game since the beginning of the season in which Stanford does not control its own Pac-12 destiny. Despite the struggles against Utah and Notre Dame, the Cardinal always knew that if they kept winning, they would have a chance to play for the Pac-12 Championship and a Rose Bowl bid. With last week’s loss to Wazzu, Stanford is pretty much out of the Pac-12 title race, and a New Year’s Six Bowl bid seems highly unlikely. That’s not to say 2018 has been an utter failure; the incredible comeback win over Oregon will live on forever in Cardinal lore, and the emergence of such a potent and exciting passing game hints at the potential for a breakout 2019 season. But Stanford’s players and coaches certainly did not expect to walk into Husky Stadium essentially eliminated from the Pac-12 North race, barring a surprising loss by Washington State. They must keep fighting anyway. Stanford can still turn 2018 into a success with a third straight 9-3 season and exciting bowl game matchup (Holiday Bowl, anyone?). Washington looks much more beat-able than they did at the beginning of the year. So does Stanford, but if the Cardinal can come out with another fiery offensive performance like last week, they can get their season back on track.
It’s a huge week of college football. Alabama-LSU, Georgia-Kentucky, Michigan-Penn State. Before the season, it looked like Stanford-Washington could bigger than all of those. Now, this presumptive Pac-12 North Championship is relegated to Pac-12 Network, and it’s a matchup of two floundering teams. But the intrigue for Cardinal and Huskies fans is immense: Saturday’s winner can keep their dreams of a successful season alive, while the loser will be left with massive questions about the future of their program. Stanford-Washington 2018: The Desperation Bowl.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.