After three straight home games to open the season, including a monumental 16-13 upset over then-No. 3 USC last Saturday, the Washington football team takes to the road for the first time this season.
The Huskies (2-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-10) travel to Palo Alto to face Stanford (2-1, 1-0) in a 6:00 p.m. (PT) game Saturday night at Stanford Stadium. The Huskies, ranked No. 24 in the AP top 25, enter the game on a two-game win streak. After a 31-23 loss to No. 11 LSU in a game they dominated in nearly every statistical category, the Huskies have beaten Idaho (42-23) and USC. The Dawgs made national news last Saturday, winning the game on a 63-yard drive that ended in a 22-yard field goal from Erik Folk with 0:03 remaining. After the Stanford game, the Huskies return to the road the following week for a game at Notre Dame before returning to Seattle to face Arizona on Oct. 10.
In a series that dates back to 1893, Washington leads 40-35-4. Other than Cal, Washington ranks as Stanford's oldest rival. Washington is 19-5 in the last 26 meetings. The Huskies have also gone 9-3 the last 12 times they have met at Stanford Stadium. But the Cardinal won the latest contest 35-28 last season at Husky Stadium in a game which derailed Washington's season when Husky quarterback Jake Locker was lost for the season with a broken thumb.
Just how good is the new and improved Cardinal? That's a tough question and one Stanford fans are still asking leading up to this game. They appear good enough to consistently beat bad teams, but have yet to get over the hump of the Pac-10 elite. After closing out last season with three straight losses to Oregon, USC and California when all they needed was one more win to become bowl eligible, the consensus was they could turn the corner in 2009-10 after returning 15 starters. They appeared on track after thumping the lowly Washington State Cougars 39-13, but proceeded that impressive showing by laying an egg against a mediocre at best Wake Forest team. Up 17-0 to start the game it appeared the Cardinal had arrived, but the Demon Deacons wore down Stanford's front seven as the game progressed and gashed them on the ground in the second half. Let's not act like this is the 2008 Wake team either. The Deacons won with defense and a conservative run first offense last season but lost their two stars LB Aaron Curry and CB Alphonso Smith to the NFL draft. Just how far did they drop? Well they lost to a Baylor team 24-21 that they killed in 2008-09 41-13.
If Stanford wants to be considered an upper echelon Pac-10 team, this Saturday they need to prove it on the field against another mediocre opponent. The talent levels for both Stanford and Washington are pretty even, but Washington will have the best player on the field in Locker, while the Cardinal will be playing at home; and that is supposed to be an advantage right? Well, Vegas is giving Stanford the usual bump for playing at home, but how much of an advantage is it to play in a half empty stadium, in front of fans that sit on their hands for most of the game?
It's not very often a ranked team is the underdog against an opponent that hasn't been to a bowl game in eight seasons. But that is just how weird this matchup is. A lot of questions will be answered Saturday in Palo Alto for both teams. Is Stanford really a Pac-10 contender or at least a post season ready team? How good is Washington; closer to last season's 0-12 team or closer to the squad that pushed LSU around the field and upset then-No.3 USC? Well folks that's why we play the game!
UW RUSHING VS STANFORD RUSH DEFENSE
While Washington isn't putting up gaudy numbers on the ground (111.33 yards per game No. 90 in the nation) they do just enough to move the chains. Their ability to gain tough yards in the right situations is why they lead the Pac-10 in third down conversion with an eye popping 60.4 percent, and are winning the time of possession battle 32:51 compared to opponents 27:09.
Their 3.2 yards per carry average might be concerning if it wasn't for the fact they played against USC's No. 5 ranked rush defense last week. Washington's leading rusher Chris Polk averaged 4.2 yards per carry in the first two games and has big play potential, but this week expect Steve Sarkisian to give some of his backups carries.
Polk is averaging 21 carries per game and the coaching staff would like to see that number around 15 to 18 to ensure the freshman doesn't break down as the season progresses. That's not a bad thing for Washington because waiting in the wings is 215-pound freshman Demetrius Bronson who Sark would like to take on the duty of Washington's power back. Almost healthy again, Bronson could see his first action of the season against Stanford. Sophomore Curtis Shaw, a former high school track star in California has game breaking speed and could also see some action, while Willie Griffin has shown flashes and backup pass catching specialist Johri Fogerson has looked like a star with the ball in his hands. Against a suspect Cardinal rush defense expect to see a much deeper rotation at tail back.
Another big factor against a Cardinal front seven lacking front line speed could be the sub 4.4 legs of Locker. Completely dedicated to becoming a pocket passer, this could be the perfect game to draw up some more designed runs and also loosen the chains on him in the passing game. Locker absolutely shredded the Stanford defense as a freshman and could do the same in this game if given any space at all.
Stanford has given up yards on the ground this season (125.67 per game, No. 56 in the nation) against two bad and one good rushing team. They allowed WSU's Dwight Tardy to average 4.5 yards per carry on 13 rushes, San Jose State's Lamon Muldrow to average 7 yards on 5 carries and Cameron Island to average 9.7 on three carries. Neither of those offenses had the ball much or the numbers could have been much worse. Case in point against Wake Forest where everyone who touched the ball seemed to gain yards against Stanford. The Deacons ran the ball a ridiculous 45 times for 251 yards and just imposed their will on the Cardinal. While I don't expect that kind of production from Washington, I also wouldn't plan on the Cardinal shutting down the Husky rushing attack.
Never a good sight, three of the Cardinal's four leading tacklers preside in the secondary. However, senior linebacker Clinton Snyder is their rock. And while Stanford's two defensive ends really get after it in the passing game, this Stanford front seven lacks speed. Washington has them completely out manned in space with Locker, Polk, Shaw and Fogerson. If Stanford cannot penetrate UW's backfield in the run game, expect Washington to have success on the ground.
UW PASSING VS STANFORD PASS DEFENSE
Washington leads the Pac-10 in passing while Stanford gives up the third most yards in the conference through the air. Although Washington's passing attack took a hit when Devin Aguilar strained his MCL in Wednesday practice, the receiving corp is the most deep position on Washington's roster. In his absence, Jordan Polk and Cody Bruns will see more passes thrown their way. Polk was the 100 meter champ in the state of Oregon and is electric with the ball in his hands, while Bruns may have the best hands on the team.
Washington's leading receiver James Johnson was also banged up in that practice, but Sarkisian said his tender shoulder would be fine come game day. That's a good thing too, because even though Washington is deep at WR, Johnson is a special talent. With a future playing on Sunday's, his impact on the team has been significant and currently ranks No. 6 in the Pac-10 with 183 yards on 16 catches. More important however is his ability to get open on third down and catch the ball while getting tackled. He's become Locker's security blanket and their on the field relationship is a thing of beauty.
Washington will also continue to find their running backs in the passing game. Fogerson and Polk are as comfortable catching the ball on screens, in the flats or lining up at WR as they are carrying the rock.
But it all starts with Locker. The much improved quarterback is the best in the Pac-10 and there really isn't a close second. If Stanford has to bring an extra man into the box to stop Washington's running game, Locker could have a monster night against a secondary that gives up yards in bunches.
Stanford's secondary is a work in progress after bringing CB Richard Sherman and S Delano Howell (brother of former Husky Dan Howell) over from offense. Howell has given them an athletic and physical presence in the back end to match up with veteran standout Bo McNally and Sherman was a big upgrade athletically for Stanford. However, both have a lot of room to improve in their pass coverage. The 5-11, 191-pound Corey Gatewood rounds out their secondary. Gatewood also has ties to the offense and is a gifted all around athlete, but he only played in two games in 2008. He also has a long way to go with his cover skills.
Stanford's pass efficiency defense ranks No. 79 in the nation and overall pass defense No. 70 allowing 219.33 yards per game. More alarming is the fact they got those number facing the No. 43, 65, and 88 rated passing attacks in the nation. The bottom line, bad passing teams have shredded Stanford's secondary and Washington should be able to do the same.
What Stanford does well is get after the passer. DE's Tom Keiser and Erik Lorig both earned post season honors and both have been trouble for opposing offensive tackles this season. As a freshman Keiser had 24 tackles, seven tackles for loss, a team-best six sacks, and three forced fumbles, despite starting just two games. He's at it again in 2009 with a team best 4 sacks through three games. However three of them did come against a San Jose State team that was throwing all game, playing from behind. Nevertheless, this will be an intriguing matchup against a Washington offensive line that doesn't give up a lot of sacks. However, UW lineman, especially tackles Cody Habben and Ben Ossai have struggled with false start penalties, even at home. It should help playing in a quiet Stanford Stadium, but they will have to be on their toes against a very formidable pass rush.
STANFORD RUSHING VS UW RUSH DEFENSE
Washington has given up big chunks of yards on the ground and will be facing a very good running back this weekend in Toby Gerhart. The 240-pound bruiser isn't going to run away from anyone, but he runs well behind his pads and will punish defenses over a course of the game. Behind him is another physical down hill runner with the tools to be an every down back if the need arises. The 6-foot-0, 215-pound Jeremy Stewart combined with Gerhart gives Stanford a very good one-two punch. But the x-factor in the Cardinal rushing equation is fullback Owen Marecic. The 6-foot-1, 241-pound mauler is one of the best in college football and has earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in his first two seasons.
Despite Gerhart's undeniable talent, he's still the fifth best running back Washington has seen this season behind LSU's duo of Charles Scott and Keiland Williams and USC's duo of Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson. Calm down Cardinal fans, that is not taking anything away from Gerhart, who is outstanding.
If Washington wants to slow him down they have to penetrate Stanford's backfield. If you allow Gerhart to hit a hole at full speed, he's going to get 5 or 6 yards every time. That is where UW's trio of linebackers come in. Perhaps the best in the Pac-10, Donald Butler, Mason Foster and E.J. Savannah will have their hands full with a very good Stanford offensive line. Also, Washington's interior lineman must play like the final three quarters against USC and not the first.
Washington made changes in USC game and went with more speed instead of size to combat the Trojan's zone blocker scheme. However, against Stanford's power run game and an undersized (yet talented center), true sophomore, 6-foot-2, 345-pound Alameda Ta'amu has to be a space eater and keep Stanford's center Chase Beeler and FB Marecic off the Husky linebackers. 6-foot-3, 280-pound DT Cameron Elisara is finally living up to his potential and the former 4-star product is having a breakout season and already has eight tackles.
A big addition the Husky defense was redshirt freshman Justin Glenn who was moved from CB to S after recovering from an injury that slowed him during fall camp. He might be Washington's best open field tackler and put that skill on display against USC, saving two touchdowns by bringing down both McKnight and Damian Williams by himself and recovering a fumble. He's only played in two games in college, both at a brand new position, and he's sixth in tackles for the Huskies.
Stanford lost C Alex Fletcher and LT Ben Muth, a couple of All-Pac-10 performers from last season but still have talent up front. At RT is Chris Marinelli, an All-Pac-10 honorable mention player who's made 28 starts. Beeler, a transfer from Oklahoma has filled in well for Fletcher, while redshirt freshman G David DeCastro might be the most promising prospect on their line. This is a talented unit that does a great job of creating space for Gerhart to run through.
STANFORD PASSING VS UW PASS DEFENSE
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is going to be special. He's big, has a good arm and is more athletic than most people think. Stanford wants to run the ball, then run the ball some more to set up the pass. They are a 60 percent running team and won't take many risks through the air. But with their running game they don't need to.
However, they have finally found a player in Chris Owusu who can stretch defenses and also turn a slant route into a touchdown. Combine him with the sure hands of Ryan Whalen and the Cardinal have more talent at receiver than they've been accustomed to. Another player that is often over looked is TE Coby Fleener and I'm surprised Stanford hasn't found a way to get the athletically gifted pass catcher more balls. He's not going to dominate with his blocking, but he has the ability to beat a linebacker in coverage and really open up the outside when he runs seam routes. However, in their conservative passing attack, it's pretty much been a two man show in 2009-10.
Much like the Cardinal secondary, just with more potential, Washington is a work in progress. Their numbers are skewed because they gave up boat loads of passing yards in their big win over Idaho. However, Husky coaches were experimenting with a lot of young players.
Speaking of young, two freshman, a sophomore and a junior make up Washington's secondary. With the youth comes growing pains but also massive improvement. True freshman Desmond Trufant brother of Seattle Seahawks all-pro corner Marcus looks like a future star. He was glued to USC's Williams and just has the physical and mental makeup to be special.
Quinton Richardson is inconsistent, but also athletically gifted. A former safety, he's got good size and is a great tackler. He's also never at a loss for confidence and made the infamous guaranteed victory claim over USC. Although he backed his talk up with actions, he's kept his mouth shut this week and had a very productive week of practice. Junior Nate Williams is Washington's leader in the secondary. He's big and physical and has had a huge hand in mentoring the young Glenn.
Stanford has been off the charts good in the return game! Three touchdowns in three games, are you kidding me? If Washington can't control Sherman and Owusu they could be in trouble. They average 41 yards a kick return...come on...and 18.4 on punts...give me a break. Those are like video games numbers, B-Button anyone!
But have no fear Husky fans, Washington hasn't given up yards all season and they will use the same short directional kicks that have been successful against other god return men. When Washington faced LSU and the fastest player in college football Trindon Holliday they simply didn't kick to him. Owusu can expect the same treatment. Also, Washington has a very talented punter in Will Mahan who despite always aiming for a sideline, has only had two bad punts all season. UW is only allowing 15.1 yards per kickoff return and 12.8 per punt return. It will be very interesting to see this matchup.
UW place kicker Erik Folk was considered one of the top high school kickers in the land. However he's really struggled with inconsistency in college. Well this season it looks like he's put it all together and is 6-of-7, including a clutch 46-yard bomb against USC.
Stanford's place kicker Nate Whitaker is only 2-of-4 on the season, but their punt coverage has been very good, ranking No. 15 in the nation with a net of 40.56 per punt and they don't even give their opponents positive yards on returns. Their kick off coverage hasn't been nearly as good, but still solid allowing over just 20 yards a return.
On paper special teams could be Stanford's biggest advantage over the Huskies.
QB -- UW -- BIG RB -- STANFORD -- SLIM WR -- UW -- MODERATE OL -- STANFORD -- SLIM
DL -- EVEN LB -- UW -- BIG DB -- UW -- SLIM
SP -- STANFORD -- MODERATE
Most are calling for a high scoring game, but with neither team really stout against the run, I expect ball control to play a large factor. And currently no one controls the ball, especially on third down better than UW and they will also have the best player on the field in Locker. He will be the difference with both his arm and legs as UW leaves Palo Alto with a 28-17 win.