Stanford's defense is ranked 1st in the nation in total defense, 1st in scoring defense, and 1st in defensive S&P. Against two weak opponents, UC Davis and Army, not a single point was surrendered. Even in the loss to USC, the Trojans had to scrape out a victory with a mere 13 points.
Such defensive dominance was not necessarily expected this season, given the loss of big-name defensive studs like Shane Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds, and Ben Gardner.
It's tempting to assume this success has been rooted in stonewall run defense. In reality, Stanford is ranked 56th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game, at 138.33. On a per carry basis, that ranking improves slightly to 45th (3.46 ypc). Washington has actually been better, giving up 113 yards per game (31st) and only 2.9 yards per carry (18th).
How can Stanford be 56th against the run and 1st in total defense? Absolutely dominant pass defense. Stanford has only allowed 66 passing ypg, and no opposing quarterback has managed to toss a touchdown.
NT David Parry (Sr., 6-2, 303) returns to anchor Stanford's 3-4 defense. Blake Lueders (Sr., 6-5, 260) and Henry Anderson (Sr., 6-5, 295) will man the defensive end spots.
This is a good group, even if the counting stats will never do them much justice in this scheme. All three are seniors, and all three played a lot in 2013.
Anderson is the most heralded of the bunch. He recorded 3 sacks and 4 tackles for loss despite only playing in 8 of 14 games, good enough for All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. In 2012, he had 50 tackles, 16 TFLs, and 6 sacks and was named All-Pac-12 2nd Team.
Washington's offensive line has the size and experience to theoretically match up here, but they have yet to really put together a dominant performance all season despite playing far less talented opponents.
Of course, the D-line bears some responsibility for Stanford's aforementioned struggles against the run. USC's Javorius Allen rushed for 154 yards on 23 carries, with a long of 50 yards, in the Trojan victory. That performance sets an importance precedent.
Murphy and Skov are gone. ILB AJ Tarpley (Sr., 6-2, 241) returns after starting and racking up 72.5 tackles last year. Blake Martinez (Jr., 6-2, 247) is the other starting ILB. James Vaughters (Sr., 6-2, 258) is the most physically imposing of the group, and he's also the most proven passrusher on the team after recording 6 sacks last year rushing opposite of Trent Murphy. OLB Kevin Anderson (Sr., 6-4, 245) rounds out the starting four.
Tarpley is the smallest of the bunch at 6-2 and 241 pounds. Vaughters easily has the size to line up at strongside defensive end for the Huskies. Washington has not had to deal with a group of linebackers anywhere near this physically impressive.
This group has moved on from the loss of Ed Reynolds like it was no big deal. It helps that both starting corners from last season, Wayne Lyons (Sr., 6-1, 196) and Alex Carter (Jr., 6-0, 200), are starting this season. Carter was named All-Pac-12 2nd Team last year, and had his name included on all sorts of awards watchlists leading up to this year.
SS Jordan Richards (Sr., 5-11, 210) started last season and picked off 3 passes. FS Zach Hoffpauir (Sr., 6-0, 197) is easily the least experienced of the four starters.
This unit performed really well against USC's talented passing offense. Kessler completed 15 of 22 passes, but for a measly 135 yards and no scores. The DBs allowed completions, but mostly underneath for short gains.
Expect a similar approach to defending Cyler Miles and his frequent short passes to Jaydon Mickens and, if he plays, John Ross. A lot of Washington's offense involves screens or fly-sweeps that put pressure on defensive backs to fight through blocks and make open field tackles. Unfortunately, that's something Lyons and Carter are equipped to do well.
I started to skip over special teams in these previews during the non-conference schedule because it felt a little ridiculous hunting down info on Georgia State's punter. Now that it's conference season, I'll preview special teams along with the defense.
Ty Montgomery returns punts and kicks, and he's scary as hell. Against Georgia State, Washington's kick-offs from Tristan Vizcaino rarely made it past the 5-yard line, while Korey Durkee has continued to show some inconsistency. Facing a returner like Montgomery, coverage will need to be fantastic on every single punt or kick-off to avoid a game-changing disaster. This is supposed to be one of the most tangible benefits of switching Sark out for Petersen. We'll see!
K Jordan Williamson (Sr.) has been around forever and has usually been dependable. He earned All-Pac-12 2nd team honors in 2011, and honorable mention in 2012. This season he went 1 of 2 against UC Davis and 1 of 3 in the loss to USC, so it remains to be seen if Coach Shaw would still trust him to hit a deep kick or a potential game-winner.
P Ben Rhynne is also a 5th year senior, and he appears to be of the good-but-not-great variety of punters.
The best defense in the country (so far) has not been even close to the best run defense in the Pac-12 North. Considering that fact, plus the limitations of Cyler Miles, Washington's best hope is in establishing the ground game.
Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington are both physical backs capable of shouldering a heavy load of carries. However, neither back has the vision to cut back runs like Bishop Sankey could. It's on the O-line to open up big enough holes that the advantage in physicality and depth at RB outweighs the relative lack of vision, something they have mostly struggled with against the likes of Illinois and Georgia State.
It's asking a lot to expect a better performance against a vastly better opponent. However, it's asking even more to expect Cyler Miles to carry the offense via his right arm. If the Huskies fall behind early, his lack of velocity on the ball and shakiness in the pocket will lead to the types of mistakes he has somehow avoided all season.
Despite looking limited overall, this offense have flashed some plays that will put pressure on Stanford's red zone defense. The problem, of course, will be getting there in the first place.
Beyond the traditional running threat, Coach Pete has shown a willingness to take advantage of both of his running quarterbacks, Miles and Lindquist.On both of Lindquist's touchdown runs against Georgia State, the QB also faked an end-around handoff, and the 2nd QB was positioned as a decoy out wide.
Even that single play introduces three or four different variables for the defense to consider, and demands a huge amount of discipline. The QB can pass the ball, hand off to the WR on the end around, hand off to the RB via the read option, flip the ball over to the 2nd quarterback to initiate some kind of trick play, or simply keep it for a QB run. The possibilities are intriguing enough.
Washington can score 20 or so points, but to do so they'll need to play at a higher level than they have played all year. Asking for more than three scores is likely unrealistic.