Anyone that says a close loss is easier to deal with than a blowout didn't watch last night's game. The Huskies proved they could go toe to toe with Stanford on their own turf, and but for some huge gaffes in special teams, they probably would have won, perhaps even comfortably. The pain was compounded by some highly questionable officiating, including the deciding call that gave the ball back to Stanford and effectively ended the game. It's a bitter defeat, knowing that this was a game Washington could have - any maybe should have - won, and it's a serious blow to Washington's chances of winning the North. On to the grades:
QB: Frequent readers know I reserve my highest grades for truly superlative performances. The job Keith Price did last night is one of those cases. Under heavy pressure most of the game from a physical (and sometimes dirty) Stanford defense, he was usually able to evade the rush and buy time for himself and his receivers. He absorbed big hits and bounced right back, and didn't let a thumb injury on his throwing hand knock him out of the game. He was on-target and made the right reads, and picked up crucial yards on the ground when needed. It might not have been a "perfect" performance, and the Huskies fell short of the win, but under the circumstances, I don't think you could have asked for much more than what KP gave. That was a huge game, and it should quiet any remaining critics. Grade: A+
RB: Bishop Sankey entered the game as the nation's leading rusher, and against a hyped Stanford front 7, he didn't nothing to challenge the thought he's among the best RB's in the country. He and the UW run game started slowly, but picked up steam as the game went on. Had the Huskies not been in catch-up mode late and passing every play, he looked on his way to putting together a big game. As it was, he still finished with 125 tough yards on 27 carries and added another 5 catches for 21 yards. He wasn't perfect - there were a few plays where he tried to stretch a play too far instead of cutting upfield and ended up losing yardage, but he was about as good as you could expect against a rugged Cardinal defense. Grade: A
WR/TE: Overall, a strong game from this group with some big-time plays by Kevin Smith and Kasen Williams. Jaydon Mickens provided the horizontal threat the offense needed to stretch Stanford wide, and Smith & Williams showed again they are among the better blocking WR's in the country. Austin Seferian-Jenkins had some big catches and continues to work his way back into the mix as a primary target. But it's the plays not made that will haunt this group - Smith also had a couple drops that hurt, and appeared to be just inches short of clearly securing that last catch that ended up overruled as an incompletion. And ASJ will be kicking himself for not hanging on to an accurate pass off his outstretched hands on the previous play which would have extended the drive and put the Huskies in field goal range with plenty of time left on the clock. Grade: B+
OL: There's no question the offensive line has played better this year. They boast a lot of experience, and unlike last year have stayed healthy (so far - knock on wood). The HUNH also helps mask their weaknesses. But last night also showed that they have a ways to go to be considered a really good OL. Stanford was able to get a lot of heat on KP, sacking him 5 times, knocking him down many more times and flushing him on countless others. Micah Hatchie had a critical whiff at the end of that long 4th quarter drive, and his man - Ben Gardner - was able to tip KP's pass high in the air, resulting in the pick by A.J. Tarpley. They were a little better in the run game, and it seemed that they were starting to wear down Stanford late with their pace. Had the Huskies been nursing a lead, it would have been interesting to see if the running game could have clinched it. Grade: C
DL: While it may be that Stanford's run game is over rated this year, you have to be impressed at how well the front four for the Huskies held up against the various jumbo packages Stanford threw at them. Danny Shelton was a force in the middle, constantly plugging things up and picking up 4 tackles of his own. Hau'oli Kikaha held up on the edge and got 6 tackles, including sharing a sack credit with Travis Feeney. And while they weren't frequently in Kevin Hogan's face, they also kept contain on him most of the game. This was their best game of the year. Grade: A-
LB: If I recall correctly, the Stanford game last year was a big showcase for Travis Feeney, and it was again last night. He was all over the field, showing terrific sideline-to-sideline quickness and sure tackling to make some big plays - none bigger than when he took down Hogan (with a major assist from Marcus Peters) short of the first down on a critical 3rd and 1 late in the game. Shaq Thompson and John Timu had strong games too, filling their gaps and wrapping up. The DL gummed up the line and the LB's were there to finish. The LB group accounted for 30 of the official 71 tackles for the Husky D. Grade: A
Secondary: While the Huskies didn't gamble with cover-0 last night, there were often in cover-1, trusting Marcus Peters and Greg Ducre to hold up in man coverage with little to no safety net behind them. It was a risk, and Stanford made them pay on a perfect pass and catch at the end of the 1st half, but otherwise the risk paid off. Peters was the one burned by Ty Montgomery on the TD pass, but he also had the early pick, and also played a key role in stopping Hogan on that late 3rd and 1 play. Ducre played very well, officially credited with 2 pass breakups. Sean Parker and Will Shamburger were both able to take turns playing in the box as run support and finished with 7 and 6 tackles each respectively. Unlike last week when Stanford and Hogan were able to shred the Cougar secondary with big plays, these guys showed they are legitimately one of the top pass defenses in the country. Grade: A
Special teams: ...aaaand here's where things get ugly. Let's start with the good: the fake punt play was a great call and terrific execution by Travis Coons. Coons was OK with punts, but this wasn't his best game in that regard. He hit his extra points. And the punt return team was adequate (I'll address the travesty that was the personal foul call on Darrell Daniels below). The bad: everything else. Kickoffs and kickoff coverage has been an issue all season, and last night it cost them the game. From the opening kickoff where Montgomery had the easiest 99 yard TD return you'll see (he never broke stride as there was no Husky even close to filling that lane), to the poor pooch kick just before the half that gave Stanford a short field (leading to a TD), to another long return by Montgomery in the 3rd quarter that left Stanford with only 19 yards to go for another TD - just about every time the Huskies got some momentum and got the game close, their kick coverage let them down. They also allowed a big punt return in the 1st quarter, but the Husky D bailed the team out as the Cardinal went 4 downs and gave the ball back. The Huskies were better on offense and better on defense last night, but lost the game because they were terrible - terrible - on kickoffs. Yes, Cameron Van Winkle apparently wasn't 100%, but it begs the question - why wasn't Coons or Zach Grossnickle kicking off if that was the case? And that doesn't excuse just really poor execution on coverage. This area has to get better, or it will cost the Huskies more games this year. Grade: D- (saved from an 'F' only by the fake punt)
Coaching: Penalties continue to be a major theme with this team. Some of them are legit problems - the false starts, the motion penalties. Some of them last night though were mystifying - someone will have to explain to me what Daniels did wrong on that punt return. I saw a hard block by him that was not targeting, was not a block in the back, and was not a hit on a defenseless player (the Cardinal in question was just a couple yards from the return man when hit, and in full pursuit). The hands to the face penalty called on Kikaha was highly questionable - there didn't appear to be any foul when the replay was shown (though perhaps the refs got the number wrong and actually meant to call it on Evan Hudson). But while it's easy to throw your hands up in frustration and say "Pac-12 refs suck!" (and they do), Sark still has to clean up some of the stupid penalties.
But lets give credit where credit is due - Sark's offense looked strong against what was supposedly one of the top defenses in the country, and Justin Wilcox's defense did a very good job of keeping Stanford's offense in check. They weren't quite as awesome as the total yardage allowed suggest (284 yards), because Stanford often had short fields and didn't need to gain as much yardage. But their yards per play allowed (4.7) was still very good, as that would place a team at 113th in that category nationally so far this season. Sark made a bold and great call on the fake punt. And for a team that has a history of folding under adversity in tough road games, this team fought back every time and looked poised to win the game.
Fingers however are sure to start pointing at Special Teams coordinator Johnny Nansen, and it's warranted. Washington has had troubles on special teams every year under his watch, and with the level of athletes now on the roster it's becoming very hard to justify the troubles in this area. Sark needs to figure out how to fix things here, or a special season could be reduced to merely a good one. Grade: B+
Refs: Job number one for Larry Scott this off-season is fixing the refereeing situation in the conference. They remain a national joke, and it's hurting the conference. Not only were there a number of highly questionable calls against Washington, there were some notable no calls against Stanford. I saw multiple obvious instances of holding not called (including a Washington DL literally tackled by the Stanford OL), and someone will have to explain to me how that Stanford defender wasn't tossed from the game for targeting - the play was over, Keith Price was down, and he jumped and dove helmet-first right at him. They also arguably should have called a roughing-the-passer penalty on 2nd down of Washington's last drive when Ben Gardner hit KP late. and of course there's the overturned catch that decided the game. Honestly, I think Smith trapped it. But unless there was an angle that ESPN didn't show, I don't see how the replay officials could say they had indisputable video evidence to overturn the call on the field. Grade: F (if there were a lower grade, I'd apply it)
Special note on Stanford: I'm not going to say with certainty that Stanford was faking injuries last night. But let's just acknowledge that they were highly suspicious - they all came at times where it was obvious the Cardinal defense needed a breather (the up-tempo was clearly taking them out of their comfort zone), and the way each of the players behaved on the sidelines and went right back in as if nothing was wrong one play later adds to the circumstantial case, as does a history of similar incidents by this staff against HUNH teams. I know Sark was frustrated by the loss and probably wishes he'd kept his mouth shut about it, but the fact he said publicly to Bob Rondeau what the rest of us were already thinking says a lot.