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King’s Keys: Muck it up

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Jet Toner’s 39 yard game-winning field goal last Saturday saved Stanford fans from what would have been a crushing and embarrassing road loss to Oregon State (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12). 

Everything was going swimmingly for the Cardinal (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) over the first 36 minutes of game time, as they accumulated a 21-0 lead and looked to be well on the way to a cathartic rout of the Pac-12 bottom-feeder Beavers. Then, the defensive struggles that have plagued the Cardinal all season allowed Oregon State to score four touchdowns in four possessions. Before Stanford fans could blink, they were staring four straight losses right in the face. Thankfully, the Stanford offense came back to life. Connor Wedington returned the kickoff to midfield, and quarterback Davis Mills led a quick drive that set up Toner’s heroic kick. 

Every member of Nerd Nation, particularly the players, were understandably thrilled to grab their first win in nearly a month. Their reward for such an exciting victory? A home date with No. 15 Washington (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), fresh off a 28-14 beatdown of USC. 

The Huskies are a bad matchup for the Cardinal. They have an elite and efficient quarterback in Jacob Eason, who can fit the ball into tighter windows than perhaps anyone in college football with his golden right arm. Their offensive line prevents teams from getting enough pressure on Eason to throw him out of his rhythm. Defensively, Washington relies on an aggressive secondary that throws a myriad of coverages at opposing quarterbacks and waits for them to make a mistake that will lead to easy points. 

Since a strange 20-19 loss to Cal in a game that was delayed nearly three hours and finished at 1:22 a.m., the Huskies have been on an absolute tear. They handed a solid Hawaii team its only loss of the season in a 52-20 rout, dominated BYU on the road to claim a 45-19 victory and returned home to pick up their first Pac-12 win over USC. Washington is a 16.5 point road favorite over Stanford, and that might be generous to the Cardinal. 

Then again, Washington has not won in Stanford Stadium since 2007, and Stanford showed promising signs in the win over Oregon State last week. An upset over the heavily-favored Huskies would change the entire tenor of the Stanford season. Here’s three keys to an improbable but not impossible Cardinal victory: 

1. Force Eason out of the pocket 

Stanford challenges its students to get out of their comfort zone in order to truly learn. With Jacob Eason visiting the Farm from the University of Washington this week, the Cardinal should help him learn this important lesson as well. Eason’s comfort zone is the pocket. He loves to stand tall behind his massive offensive line and wait for a receiver to come open so that he can sling it into a tight window. When he has time, Eason is elite. He can throw a football ball harder and farther than any quarterback Stanford will face this season. 

But Eason is not nearly as comfortable when opposing defenses are able to get in his face and force him out of the pocket. He will make mistakes and miss open receivers. In the Cal loss, Eason was just 18 of 30 for 162 yards and an interception. In the BYU win, Eason completed 24 of 28 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. One huge difference in those two performances? Cal racked up four sacks on Eason, while BYU did not get a single sack or QB hurry all game. 

Stanford has the ability to rush the passer. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s unit racked up four first half sacks against Oregon State last week. But the Cardinal front seven can also go startlingly quiet and give opposing quarterbacks all day to throw, like the sack-less second half against the Beavers. When Stanford fails to get pressure, the defense is in trouble. That is particularly true against Washington. The Cardinal must make Eason run for his life or he will single-handedly rip Stanford to shreds from his comfort zone. 

2. Drive the dog sled

What are Huskies known for? Pulling dog sleds to Iditarod victories. What are offensive linemen known for? Pushing blocking sleds across the practice field. Stanford’s offensive linemen must push around the Washington defense like a champion Alaskan musher if they are to move the ball on Saturday.

The analogy might be a stretch, but the point is that Stanford has to run the ball successfully in order to take down the Huskies. Despite facing dynamic passing offenses in Hawaii, BYU and USC over three consecutive weeks, the Washington defense is ranked 13th nationally in passing yards per attempt. But on the ground, the Huskies are not nearly as stingy. Opposing offenses are rushing for 4.7 yards per attempt against Washington, putting the Huskies at just 94th nationally.

The Washington secondary is incredible, as it always is under defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. But the Husky front seven is perhaps not husky enough. Opponents are gashing Washington on the ground, and the Huskies are ranked just 87th in the FBS in sacks-per-game. 

Stanford is not the rushing juggernaut it once was, but the Cardinal are quietly improving on the ground. Cameron Scarlett is averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry and over 80 yards-per-game. True freshman Austin Jones has shown big-play ability, including his 35 yard touchdown scamper against UCF. Stanford still must pass to set up the run. But if the Cardinal offensive line can open up holes for its talented running backs, Stanford might just have a chance to drive on the Dawgs. 

3. Muck it up

David Shaw’s ’94 team does not have a prayer if the Washington offense gets fired up and the Husky defense generates multiple takeaways. Washington is more talented. Washington is more confident. Washington is just better. But you could say all of those things about Clemson when it faced North Carolina last week, too. What happened? The Tar Heels shortened the game with an ugly but effective running game and held down the explosive Clemson passing attack. The Tigers always seemed to be one play from pulling away, but they could never do it. If North Carolina could have converted a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter, it would have upset the top-ranked team in the country as a 27 point underdog.  

Stanford should not follow that exact script against Washington, but Shaw would be smart to take a page out of North Carolina head coach Mack’s Brown’s playbook on Saturday. The Cardinal can not win “pretty” against the Huskies. Regardless of whether Davis Mills or K.J. Costello gets the start, Stanford will not have much success throwing the ball. And the Cardinal can not allow backbreaking big plays from the Washington offense. Stanford must control the line of scrimmage and force the Huskies to play on their terms. Then perhaps the Cardinal will find themselves with a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. As a massive home underdog against a Washington program that has controlled the Pac-12 over the last few seasons, that is all Stanford can ask for. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.