The time to tinker and slowly develop consistency has come to a close. Fortunately, the time for agonizing over too-close victories is also coming to an end. A win against Stanford, no matter how ugly, will be a good thing for Washington.
Stanford has also had a rocky start, albeit a very different one. Cardinal started out by beating UC Davis 45-0. The next week they lost to USC 13-10 at home. Army traveled to Palo Alto in week three only to be demolished 35-0. A bye week followed that strange trio of games.
Despite scoring 90 points and surrendering only 13, the Stanford faithful are left worrying about the offense's ability to put up points. Such is the reality of the college football non-conference schedule.
This three game sample is even wonkier than one might expect. All three games were played at home; Saturday's game will be Stanford's first road trip. On top of that, almost nothing can be gleaned from the wins over UC Davis and Army except that Stanford hasn't played down to weak competition (as opposed to Washington).
That leaves the loss to USC. While that game has likely provided valuable tape for Coach Pete and his staff, it's questionable to assume the Stanford team that plays this Saturday will be the exact same Stanford team that fell to the Trojans. Just look at how different Washington has been each week.
Basically: I still don't know what to think about either team and I doubt you do either.
Enter Kevin Hogan. The 6-4, 228-pound senior has been called everything from savior of the offense to limited game manager and everything in between. The reality, as is usually the case, falls somewhere in the middle.
Hogan is smart with the football (36:14 TD to INT ratio over his career) and mobile enough to escape pressure or roll out for play action strikes. His ceiling is limited by a slow throwing motion and solid-but-unspectacular arm strength and accuracy.
Hogan's 2013 season line tells the story: 180 of 295 passing (61%), 2630 yards (8.9 ypa), 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. The yardage total, accuracy, and touchdown total are good, the yards per attempt and limited interceptions are very good. He did what he was asked to do in the Stanford offense, and he didn't mess things up.
The difference this season is that Taylor Gaffney is gone, the offensive line cannot dominate as a run-blocking unit on the same level as last year, and the talent and depth at wide receiver is better than it has been in years. Stanford is still Stanford, but Hogan will pass more this season.
In '13, Hogan averaged 21 passing attempts per game over 14 games. Through three games this year, he has averaged 24.66 attempts despite exiting the UC Davis game early after a 12 of 16, 3 touchdown performance. The 30 passes attempted against USC will likely end up just over his season average.
Expect at least 30 attempts against Washington's extra-shaky defensive backfield.
Stanford constantly produces NFL linemen, and LT Andrus Peat (6-7, 316) looks to be next in a long line of Stanford linemen taken in the early rounds of the draft.
Outside of Peat, the line is uncharacteristically inexperienced. LG David Yankey (1st team All-American, 1st team All-Pac-12), Cameron Fleming (2nd team All-Pac-12), and Khalil Wilkes (2nd team All-Pac-12) are all gone from last year, along with RG Kevin Danser, meaning four new starters to the right of Peat.
Of course, most of the young players stepping in to new starting roles were four-star recruits coming out of high school. While they lack a track record of success, the raw talent level did not necessarily take a big hit.
Joshua Garnett (Jr., 6-5, 316) will start at left guard. Stanford snagged him out of Puyallup, WA as a five-star prospect in the Class of 2011, and he is finally getting his turn to impress. Graham Shuler (Jr., 6-4, 287) will get the start at center. RG Johnny Caspers (So., 6-4, 301) and RT Brendon Austin (Jr., 6-6, 304) round out the starting five.
Coach David Shaw was recently quoted as saying that the tackles, Peat and Austin, are playing "extremely well," while the three interior linemen are "still getting used to their positions." That pretty well sums things up so far. USC's star defensive tackle Leonard Williams, the first and only big challenge of the season for those interior linemen, was dominant in the Trojan win, recording 8 total tackles and a sack.
Danny Shelton is a very different player than Williams, but the two are certainly the top two interior defensive linemen in the conference. Shelton has long been a monster against the run, but this season he is 2nd in the nation in sacks with 7 after recording only 2.5 sacks in the first two years of his career. Shelton against Shuler (and whichever guard happens to double team him on any given play) is one of Washington's greatest potential matchup advantages.
Kikaha is the only player in the nation that has sacked the quarterback more than Shelton. Andrus Peat has the best chance of stone-walling the senior BUCK linebacker, but Kikaha is comfortable rushing from the left or right side and will still have a fighting chance to get to the quarterback whether he's facing Austin or Peat.
Even if Hogan does air it out 30+ times, you can never forget about the run game against Stanford. The Husky defense was gashed on the ground by Hawaii, giving up 217 yards on 54 attempts and a touchdown. Since then, none of Washington's three opponents have managed to eclipse 100 yards rushing, no rushing touchdowns have been surrendered, and the yards per carry allowed average has fallen to 2.9 (455 yards on 157 carries).
That's encouraging, but EWU, Illinois, and Georgia State do not possess a single offensive lineman that would see the field for Stanford.
The top two backs on the depth chart, Kelsey Young (Sr., 5-10, 195) and Barry Sanders (So., 5-10, 192), combined for 19 carries in 2013. Both lack the power and endurance of last year's bell cow, the 220-pound Gaffney.
It's a clear running back by committee situation, and that's exactly how things have played out so far. Kelsey Young (21 carries for 122 yards, 5.81 ypc) leads the team in carries, while Barry Sanders (18 for 142, 7.89) has rushed for the most yards. Remoud Wright, the third-string back, has carried the ball 15 times for 88 yards.
All three backs are averaging over five yards per carry, but the three have combined to score zero rushing touchdowns.This echoes a huge problem in the loss to USC: red zone efficiency. In that game, Young and Wright combined for 99 rushing yards on only 18 carries (5.5ypc), but both failed to score (Sanders saw little action in that game, but performed well against Army).
Stanford is still running the ball plenty, and doing so pretty efficiently. Still, the identity of last year's offense was built around Gaffney's ability to tote the rock 30+ times (for at least 4 ypc) whenever necessary, including in the red zone. Technically 10 carries each to Sanders, Young and Wright can have the exact same impact as 30 carries to one back, but it remain to be seen if this group is capable of forming that kind of a committee.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
In a different year, you might expect that the Huskies would be able to hide a weak pass defense against Stanford of all teams. This year, even Cardinal are ready to exploit this matchup.
All the talent has returned. The obvious star is Ty Montgomery (Sr., 6-2, 215), but Devin Cajuste (Jr., 6-4, 228) and Michael Rector (So., 6-1, 187) are both dangerous targets who produced last season.
Peters, who picked off two (three) passes in his return from suspension this past weekend, might be able to minimize Montgomery's damage (already 22 catches for 246 yards and two scores in 2014), but Cajuste and Rector are perfectly capable of burning Washington's other corners.
I'm particularly worried about Cajuste. He has only caught 7 passes so far this season, but three of them have been for touchdowns. In the red zone, or really from anywhere given that the fade is Washington's greatest nemesis, Hogan should look to toss it up to the 6-4 target.
Austin Hooper (RSFr., 6-4, 254) seems to be the next Stanford tight end in line. Hot off his redshirt year, he has already caught 12 balls for 170 yards for a score.
I hardly expect Stanford to abandon the run game just because they have a big advantage through the air. In fact, that advantage, and Washington's knowledge of it, may lead to a big performance on the ground.
We all know Coach Shaw loves to carry on the Harbaugh tradition of power running with two and three tight end sets. In this case, don't be surprised to see Stanford frequently run out of 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 HB, 1 TE) in order to keep the passing threat at the front of Washington's mind while simultaneously pulling a defender out of the box.
On paper, Washington's talent at NT and LB should, at worst, be a wash against the interior of Stanford's O-line and a fairly underwhelming stable of backs. However, force that defense into nickel, complete a few short to intermediate passes against young guys like CB Naijel Hale, CB Sidney Jones and S Kevin King, and the run defense may start to loosen up, especially outside the tackles.
That is my greatest fear: that Stanford will come out relatively fast and mix in spread looks, force the Husky defense backwards and score early, and then revert back to the old-fashioned power run/play action shot formula to protect the lead and drain out the clock.
How can Washington prevent that from happening? First and foremost, the secondary needs to hold up. It's just a given that Peters will need to have a very good game. He will not always be defending Montgomery, but when he is, he cannot be the one to allow a big play. There just isn't enough of a margin for error.
Sidney Jones played encouragingly well against Georgia State, and he should get the start across from Peters. He must successfully jam Cajuste at the line in press coverage. This has been a huge problem for the corners all season long, and the safeties are just too young and inexperienced to make up for it with timely help over the top. The same goes for Naijel Hale or any other Husky corner.
If these guys blow it like they did against Eastern, or early against Georgia State, they will not be able to trade scores for four quarters. It's that simple.
Play respectable enough coverage to take away any long scoring plays, and Stanford will have to grind out the kind of victory that eluded them against USC.
Note: I'll cover special teams in tomorrow's defensive preview.