Raise your hand everyone that thinks they have a clear handle on what to expect from the 2014 Huskies. Anyone? Anyone?
Before the season started I figured this would be another hard-fought battle with the Tree, but that our experienced OL & DL and the advantages of playing at home combined with significant defections from the Stanford defense equaled an important early-season victory for the Dawgs and a great chance to head into Eugene in Week 7 undefeated and with a 2nd consecutive visit from the GameDay folks. Now? I really have no idea what to expect.
No aspect of this team has played with the kind of consistency that inspires great confidence. While the offense has looked really good at times, it's fallen far short of the effectiveness they displayed last year, and the success we've seen so far has to be tempered by the quality of the opponents. The run game has looked good at times, but without the explosive plays we saw from Bishop Sankey last year. Is this a group that can face off against a strong defense and get the job done? The passing game has generated plenty of talk here, and a lot of folks are growing concerned about the limitations they see in Cyler Miles. A return to health from John Ross and breakout games from Kasen Williams and Darrell Daniels would go a long way towards making Husky fans feel better about this part of the offense. They'll have what could be their stiffest test of the year vs. Stanford - the front 7 for the Cardinal is big, nasty and really good, and their secondary boasts a lot of experience. The run game will have to hope they can replicate the success USC's Buck Allen had against them, the OL (and RB's) will have to solve their blitz pickup woes and Miles & the receivers will have to be in lockstep in recognizing blitzes and making them pay for their aggressiveness.
The Husky D has been a bit more encouraging, with the obvious caveat that the secondary is still a significant work in progress. It helps to have the nation's top-2 sack-masters in Danny Shelton & Hau'oli Kikaha, and they'll need those guys to come up big again in this one, remaining stout and assignment-sound against the run and getting in the face of QB Kevin Hogan. This might also be the game where we see the staff experiment with playing Elijah Qualls next to Shelton in place of Evan Hudson (and perhaps sliding E. Hudson outside in place of Andrew Hudson). The secondary is obviously a better unit with Marcus Peters back there, and we've seen signs that Sidney Jones is improving, but this is the unit that will be under extreme pressure against Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector. The LB's will be the X-factor IMO - they need to be stout and fit the run-gaps, and when asked to blitz they have to get there. This would be a great game to see Shaq Thompson and/or Travis Feeney as blitzers around the edge or stunting with the ends.
Last year's game was effectively lost due to poor special teams play, specifically the kick coverage units. While the special teams have improved this year, kick coverage has been their weakest link - they'll need to keep Montgomery from giving Stanford consistently excellent field position or even worse, easy scores. On the plus side, our return units (especially if Ross is back) are now equal threats to score.
When I look at this game on paper, I just don't see a win for the Huskies. Stanford has the defense to make our offense look inept, and they have enough weapons on offense to burn our young secondary. While they stumbled vs. USC, this is a veteran, smart team that has played in a system that has been in place since 2007. The Huskies are an inconsistent bunch still adapting to a new staff and new schemes. And yet for some reason I can't shake the feeling that we are ready to see this team rise to the challenge, and that this coaching staff has some tricks up their sleeves. I don't think this is going to be a barn-burner, and it will likely require some big plays and the turnovers to continue to bounce our way, but I'm going to succumb to the homer inside me and call for the win: UW 20, Stanford 17
Stanford comes to town as much as an enigma to their fanbase as UW has been to ours. The only difference is that they have a conference loss already on the ledger. One more and their quest for another Pac12 title will be squarely on the ropes. The question is whether or not UW can deliver that blow.
The Cardinal are pretty much in the shape that we said they'd be in when we wrote it up in our Gekko Files. The offensive line, breaking in four new starters, has not met expectation. They've allowed Kevin Hogan to get sacked on 6.5% of snaps, they've failed to create the kind of creases that Stanford RBs are used to running through and they've not been able to set consistent pocket integrity.
More on the Cardinal
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Sound like any other O-Line that you know?
While it is still early, the identity of that Stanford Offense is still pretty well known. They will force you to respect the run and then beat you over the top with their best weapons - WRs Ty Montgomery, David Cajuste and one-time UW commit Michael Rector. If UW wants to matchup, we are going to need to see the nation's leading defensive line create QB pressures without the aid of a blitz, linebackers fully commit to stepping up into running lanes and DBs hang tight with little help. This is the Justin Wilcox approach. It has worked before and, if that d-line can keep Hogan from getting comfortable, it can work again.
The problem is on the other side of the ball. The Stanford D has performed much better than I had expected they would after replacing so many key players from a year ago. The key is that linebacking corps including Kevin Anderson, A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters. These guys are bigger guys who are going to focus on taking your rushing attack away. To beat them, you need to force them to play run first by banging it up in there and then sting them by getting the ball quickly to the perimeter or behind the D on play-action. This game plan works because it limits linebacking blitzing. Without the blitzes, Stanford's very big d-line isn't really a threat to generate their own pass rush.
This won't be easy, especially for a UW team that is really fighting itself on offense. The rushing attack is key and, frankly, the Husky RBs haven't shown that they can take on a physical linebacking unit and break tackles. Still, I'm reminded that it was the Stanford game in Seattle two years ago where a struggling Bishop Sankey had his breakout game and really exploded. Maybe it'll happen again? Maybe this will also be the game where UW figures out how to get Kasen Williams the ball. His skills in both picking the ball and generating YAC are highly valued against this kind of team.
I think UW is capable of pulling this off, but I feel like we just aren't in the rhythm or the place in the learning curve that we need to be in to do so. I like UW's D to make the game close, but I fear that we'll see nothing out of UW's offense and that this will go down as another opportunity missed. Stanford 23, UW 13
Do I think that Washington will eventually play a complete game in all three phases? Absolutely. I just have trouble predicting that it will happen for the first time against the conference's two-time defending champion. Stanford 24, Washington 17
Well, well, what have we here? The Stanford Cardinal are coming to the Dawghouse to defend their split-decision victory from last season. Are the Cardinal as good as last year? No. Is the game in Husky Stadium instead of Palo Alto? Yes. Then the Dawgs should win. Ah, but then there's the question: how good are the Huskies? And how well will they actually play on Saturday?
I actually have the answers to both those questions. I wrote them down on a napkin from Toshi's, but somebody seems to have gotten some teriyaki sauce or possibly chocolate ice-cream topping on it, so I can't quite make out the words. "The Huskies are... something... than the 2013 season, with better run-... something... but struggle with smudge or something, maybe that's a booger." Anyway, your guess is as good as mine. Better, probably.
Here's what I think will happen. The Dawgs will pull it together and come out fired up. They'll benefit from a long non-conference schedule, they'll have learned some lessons, and they're basically healthy. They'll play their best game so far.
Look, Stanford is going to come back to earth some time. Maybe not this year., but then maybe this week. I suspect they're more like Cal -- who had a few great years but lost their mojo -- than like Oregon -- who seems to have dug in a foothold. Jim Harbaugh is a superlative coach. Possibly the best in the world. I think David Shaw is perfectly fine, but he's not Jim Harbaugh and he's on borrowed time.
The Cardinal are beatable. The Huskies have the ability to be good. Vegas thinks the Huskies have a one-in-four chance of winning. I think that's too low. If both Stanford and Washington play their best game, this is a toss up. The real question is whether the Huskies can play their best game or not.
For Washington to pull this game out, they're simply going to have to play better on both sides of the ball than they have to date. I'm a lot more confident that they can do that on the defensive side of the ball than on offense right now.
The strength of the Huskies' defense - the front seven - matches up fairly well with the Cardinal's offensive line. The Huskies thus far have been more adept rushing the passer than stopping the run, but they've also spent much of the time in nickel defense with Travis Feeney on the sideline or in coverage. That should change Saturday. For the first time in the last five years, Stanford enters this game without a physical, dominant back that can wear a defense down. That's a good thing for the Huskies' smallish linebacking corps. The Cardinal won't challenge the inexperienced Husky secondary the way Eastern, Illinois, and Georgia State did, but if the safeties start to come downhill too hard to help in run support, Kevin Hogan will make them pay over the top to receivers Ty Montgomery, Devin Cajuste, and Michael Rector.
On offense, Stanford's huge line and linebackers will have a field day against a struggling Husky offensive line if the front five don't take a big step forward. Stanford will blitz, but they're also content to just be physically superior. Getting Ben Riva back should help, if he's healthy. It's tempting to think that the way to beat Stanford on the ground is to run around them, but I'd argue the Huskies are better off running right at them. Regardless, yards on the ground are likely going to be tough to come by. Cyler Miles needs to show much better pocket presence than he has so far. When the pocket collapses, and it will, he needs to step forward instead of running laterally. That's a tough skill for a QB, but that's where the space is going to be to extend plays, and to pick up some yards with his feet.
Stanford, almost by their own design, isn't going to score a lot of points unless the Huskies help them out with turnovers or bad special teams play. The Huskies will also likely find it difficult to score without a little help or some big plays that Stanford isn't prone to giving up. Playing at home is a huge benefit to the Huskies, and I think it's going to be enough to get the Tree to cough it up once or twice to give the Dawgs good field position, and the offense puts together at least two good drives to put points on the board. It's not going to be pretty to most fans, but call it Huskies 20, Stanford 17