Here’s my story advancing Thursday night’s game:
SEATTLE – Early in the second quarter last fall, Keith Price was flushed on third-and-long at the Stanford 26-yard line.
That stalled Washington and brought on kicker Erik Folk, who had hit eight of nine field-goal attempts up to that point. He kicked from a clean hold, but the football veered right and plunked the upright. No good.
Stanford took over and put eight men on the line of scrimmage in power I formation. To start the ensuing 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, Stanford ran seven consecutive times. The only negative Cardinal movement was because of a holding call. Stanford ran the ball down Washington’s throat.
That’s because the Cardinal plays a game of leverage. Once up 31-14, Stanford had twisted Washington’s arm and brought it to a knee. The Huskies were forced into constant passing to make up the deficit. Stanford just ran the ball and ran the ball, then ran some more, on the way to 446 rushing yards. The result was a 65-21 demoralization.
“I remember we lost … bad,” Austin Seferian-Jenkins said when asked about that game. “I think we’re a better team than last year.”
There will be few secrets about eight-ranked Stanford’s approach tonight at CenturyLink Field. It will run with Stepfan Taylor, the conference’s second-leading rusher, and try to stop the run with three linemen to enable almost constant double coverage of receivers.
The smarty pants also want to be the tough guys, a formula started by former coach Jim Harbaugh and maintained by David Shaw.
“They just play physical the whole game and we know that’s what they’re going to do,” safety Justin Glenn said. “We’ve got to prepare ourselves and get the young guys ready and tell them, you know, buckle up, strap up and get ready to play four quarters because it’s going to be a battle.”
Though improved, Washington’s defense remains susceptible to the run. The Huskies are 11th in the conference against it. They also have problems running, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Stanford allows a compressed average of 1.6 yards per carry.
The Cardinal also has multiple massive tight ends at its disposal. Up to four will be on the field at the same time, sometimes motioning out of a fullback position, sometimes tucked on the line, other times split out. Senior tight end Zach Ertz, who leads the Cardinal in receiving yards, is 6-foot-6, 255 pounds. Senior Levin Toilolo is 6-8, 265 pounds.
They are also the beneficiaries of Stanford’s pile-driving approach. Once teams cheat to stop the run, the Cardinal will zip a tight end up the seam on play-action. The relentless running wears down legs and minds, leaving defenses exposed like an open wound.
“That’s part of mental toughness,” Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You can have big, fast, strong guys, but if you’re not mentally tough and you can’t handle that, being able to get your eyes on your key the 73rd play of the game, then you’re going to get us beat.”
Wilcox said sniffing out Stanford’s play-action comes from a simple place: eyes. Each lineman, linebacker and defensive back will have a “key” to focus on. Get lazy with that focus, lose your key? Trouble comes over the top.
“We’ve got to make sure we get our eyes right and don’t give them anything easy,” Wilcox said.
Stanford has the most players taller than 6-foot-4 in the conference. Shaw said it recruits “big guys, not fat guys” to play on the offensive line where Stanford will rotate up to nine guys, including former Puyallup stud Josh Garnett.
But, Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said this week is about the Huskies. He’s tried to instill that approach following the Week 2 letdown in Baton Rouge, La., against LSU.
“I think at the end of the day we want to be 1-0 in Pac-12 play, that’s been the goal now for two weeks, a week-and-a-half, and that’s the goal Thursday is whatever it is going to take to get to 1-0,” Sarkisian said.
What it will take was not available last year and hasn’t been for four years. Washington hopes to change that (Thursday).