This is the fifth entry in an ongoing series between Ryan Priest and Alex Hyres. Each week, we'll look at the matchup between Washington and their opponent, give predictions for the game's outcome, and hopefully have a little fun along the way. Up this week is Stanford. Our previous chats can be found here: Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State, Arizona.
Alex: As a current resident of the Bay Area, I am almost always jealous of friends and family who are able to watch games live at Husky Stadium. However, Saturday's game against the Arizona Wildcats was an exception. Rarely in Seattle does it rain that hard for that long, let alone with the wind blowing that hard for that long. The elements were definitely a factor for both teams.
Nevertheless, the Huskies were able to overcome the elements and pull out a gutsy win. Keith Price made enough plays and took care of the ball—with the exception of an interception that was intended for Jaydon Mickens, who appeared to stop running his route—while Bishop Sankey continued his torrid start to the season on a record-setting number of carries. Sankey's production is becoming a virtual foregone conclusion, and will continue to be if teams don't start to pay him more attention. At his current pace, Sankey would seem to be one of the early front-runners for the Doak Walker Award. A strong game against Stanford, known for their ability to stop the run, could bolster an already strong case for that award.
Outside of two plays on defense—a blown assignment by Shaq Thompson on a read-option play at the end of the first half, and a blown coverage by Travis Feeney on a wheel route on a fourth-and-long in the third quarter—the defensive unit managed to force Arizona's offense to chunk their way down the field for points. Ka'Deem Carey played an All-American game; however, the Huskies were able to mitigate his performance by shutting down the rest of his teammates, most notably quarterback B.J. Denker.
Why do you think the Husky defense was successful stopping the rest of Arizona's offense? To what extent do you think Husky fans should be worried about Washington's lack of offensive efficiency in the first half of games thus far?
Ryan: My concerns about Washington's offensive struggles in the first half are basically non-existent for the very reason that you cited in your opening paragraph: The torrential downpour that this game was played in made it no secret that each team was going to run the ball on virtually every play. With both offenses playing predictably on account of the weather, the elements unquestionably played to the favor of Rich Rodriguez's team, as the Wildcats didn't have much of a passing game to be negated by the rain in the first place.
Despite a ground-centric matchup that favored Arizona, Washington was able to keep its opponent in check thanks to stellar play on the part of its defense and punter Travis Coons. I was thoroughly impressed by Coons' ability to consistently pin the Wildcats deep in their own territory—all five of his punts resulted in Arizona beginning drives beyond their 20-yard line—and Washington's ability to dominate Arizona's spread offense attack (could you have imagined writing that after last year's dismantling in Tucson?) afforded UW's high-powered offense the time that it needed to click into gear. Despite a few mistakes by the Huskies, especially Shaq biting on the read-option fake that Denker took for 33 yards to set up Arizona's first touchdown just before halftime, the outcome of this contest was never in doubt.
Next week, ESPN's College Gameday will cover the No. 4 Ohio State/No. 16 Northwestern game, rather than the No. 5 Stanford/ No. 15 Washington game. (Think former Ohio State quarterback and College Gameday co-host Kirk Herbstreit had anything to do with that?) While you and my other Bay Area friends have my sympathies for being passed over, Washington's challenge in Palo Alto remains as difficult as ever. In your mind, what does Washington need to accomplish to upset a top-10 Stanford squad for the second year in a row?
Alex: I'll start with the obvious. In order to win this game, the Huskies will need to take the crowd out of the game. Sike. The crowd will not be a factor for the Huskies whatsoever; however, the physical and disciplined style of play of the Cardinal will require the Huskies to play a complete game.
First of all, Washington needs to start fast on offense and put Stanford on their collective heels. Stanford is at its best when playing with a lead and lining up on offense with three tight ends, running the ball down their opponents' throat—much like the Palo Alto Pounding that the Huskies endured a few years ago. While I believe that that Huskies are better equipped to handle the Cardinal running attack than they were the last time they visited The Farm, I still think they are better off forcing the Cardinal into obvious passing downs. Stanford may have been able to throw the ball all over the field against a less-talented Washington State Cougar secondary last week, but I don't see them doing the same against the Husky secondary. While the caliber of Stanford's skill players has improved in the past few years, I still think the Huskies will have superior athletes covering their skill players.
Another key for the Huskies will be spreading the ball on offense—especially early in the game—to their numerous playmakers. This is not a game that the Huskies can win by handing the ball off 40 times to the Bishop. Spreading the ball on offense will require the Stanford defense to play sideline to sideline while handling the tempo of the Husky offense. In addition to good games from Kasen Williams, Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Smith and John Ross III, the Huskies will need an All American-type performance from Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Seferian-Jenkins has not played at an All American level yet this season; however, I think that this is the type of contest where he can bust out and have a major impact on the outcome of the game.
The most important key for the Huskies is winning the field position battle. Even great defenses will struggle when they are constantly forced to defend a short field. To help the Husky defense, the special teams unit will need to continue its strong play, led by Travis Coons and the punt team. To help the Husky offense, the special teams unit will need to set up at least a few offensive opportunities with a short field. With long fields for the Stanford offense and short fields for the Husky offense, coupled with a fast start involving all of the Husky playmakers, I see the Huskies pulling the upset.
Who—one from each of the three phases—needs to play a big game if the Huskies are to beat the Cardinal in Palo Alto?
Ryan: Sorry Alex, but I just can't play by your rules. The fact of the matter is that Washington will need far more than one person in each phase of the game to step up in order to claim their biggest road win since 2002, when the Huskies beat No. 3 Washington State 29-26 in triple-overtime.
First among those who need to step up are the players who make up the two-deep of Washington's offensive line. Despite coming away with the win, last year's offensive line allowed Stanford's defensive front to absolutely ravage Keith Price, as the Husky quarterback was either sacked or hit on seemingly every pass play. Four games into this season, the crew has been markedly better, and no coincidentally, markedly healthier. Maintaining a pocket around Price will be absolutely critical to the offense's success on Saturday.
Looking at the key players on the defensive side of the ball, I'm tempted to remain focused on the line of scrimmage, which will no doubt be a huge test for Washington's defensive line. Stanford, after all, has perhaps the single best offensive line in college football, and being able to line up nose-to-nose with their road graders and fight to a stalemate (if not win outright) on each down in order to keep their blockers from reaching Washington's linebackers will be imperative to Washington's chances. However, I'm going to give Marcus Peters the nod. Last year, Washington had a lock-down, four-year starting cornerback in Desmond Trufant covering receivers that Josh Nunes couldn't seem to throw to even when they were open; this year, the Cardinal has one of the best quarterbacks in college football in Kevin Hogan, who will be eager to feed the ball to players like Ty Montgomery, Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste. Playing effective blanket coverage on those receivers and allowing pass rushers like Josh Shirley, Corey Littleton and Hau'oli Kikaha time to fight off Stanford's linemen is the only way to make Hogan feel pressure, and if they can't accomplish that goal, I don't see Washington coming out of this one with the W.
As for special teams, I'll keep it short and sweet—Travis Coons needs to keep doing what he's doing. If he can replicate his performance in the Arizona game on Saturday and consistently give Stanford 80-yard or more fields to work with, Washington just might stand a chance in this one.
Alright, it's prediction time, and I have a feeling that you're going into this game more optimistic than I can claim to be. How do you see Saturday's game turning out?
Alex: This is the second-best opponent that the Huskies will face this season; however, you're right about my penchant for being more optimistic. So far they have beaten a ranked team, a team on the road, a high school All-Star team, and a solid Pac-12 team in a monsoon, but they have yet to win a statement game. Winning this game will be the statement for the season. Winning this game will set-up a monumental match-up on Montlake next week. Winning this game will make the Huskies a legitimate contender for the Pac-12. Winning this game will catapult the Huskies into the top-10. Winning this game will be a statement that Huskies are ready for national relevance again.
With all this at stake, I predict the Huskies will play their best game of the season and of the Sarkisian era. I'll call it Washington 31, Stanford 21.
Ryan: As magical as the month of September was for UW, I think the Huskies will suffer their first stumble of the season in Palo Alto. Last year's win over Stanford was arguably the high point of the entire year, but any objective observer could see that the Huskies won by playing their absolute best while the Cardinal played, if not their absolute worst, then at least substantially worse than they were capable of. And that was at a game in Seattle! Washington's road struggles over the past few years have been too extensive for me to pick the upset here, especially against a top-five team. That being said, I expect the Huskies to keep fighting for the game's entire 60 minutes, and I think that we will look back at this game and recognize it as a substantial step forward in Washington's ability to hang with elite competition on the road. Washington 17, Stanford 21.