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Why The Way They Won Mattered

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Washington didn’t just beat Stanford. They BEAT Stanford. There is a difference and it matters.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington
Even Christian McCaffrey had to bow down to Washington following last weekend’s showdown in Seattle.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Lesser teams beat better teams in the sport of College Football.

It is a reality. The phrase “on any given Saturday” exists for a reason. It happens all the time.

When a team like Portland State beats a WSU, or a North Dakota State wins over an Iowa, we don’t immediately jump to a conclusion that the victorious team is superior. Rather, we tend to dissect those games and ask questions about the readiness of the superior team.

That is completely rational. Typically there is an explanation. Sometimes injuries hamper the superior team. Maybe some balls bounced in the right direction. Maybe that one player on the underdog team played so far out of his mind that he willed his team to victory after getting ridiculously hot (think about the impact Vernon Adams had on an otherwise listless team in Seattle last season).

Like I said, this happens all of the time. But I’ll tell you where it did not happen. It did not happen in Husky Stadium last Friday night. And that matters. It matters a great deal.

It is no secret that the version of the Stanford Cardinal that Washington defeated on Friday was not at full strength. The Cardinal were missing their two starting cornerbacks, their fullback, and one of their starting wide receivers. It was not an ideal situation for even a top-ten ranked team heading into a road environment to be grappling with. The situation was ripe for an upset. Even if Stanford played its typical style and outmuscled Washington, a random play or two from UW’s speedy outside receivers, or perhaps a pick six by one of their elite defensive backs taking advantage of a less-experienced receiver, could easily have determined the outcome of that game.

Fortunately for UW, something different came to pass.

The Huskies exerted a level of physical dominance over their northern California rival the likes of which have been unseen for the better part of the last decade. Name the position group and you can be sure that UW dominated the matchup.

The line of scrimmage was where it started. Defensively, UW’s big bodies - Greg Gaines, Elijah Qualls, and Via Vea - eviscerated Stanford’s entire offensive line. Their efforts created rush opportunities for UW’s outside guys. Psalm Wooching got 3 sacks and Joe Mathis got 2, while leaving their backers (Azeem Victor with 11 tackles, Keishawn Bierria with 8 tackles) free to roam and contain Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffrey. Before it was said and done, the Huskies registered eight sacks, each of which came out of UW’s base defense.

On the offensive side, the UW line exerted similar dominance over Stanford’s line. The Cardinal expected their dynamic duo of end Solomon Thomas and NG Harrison Phillips to be disruptive against the run and to be able to pressure Jake Browning. But UW’s line, in particular the right side of the line including RT Kaleb McGary, C Coleman Shelton, and G Shane Brostek (not to mention true freshman Nick Harris), excelled both at keeping a clean pocket and in clearing rushing lanes. UW generated over 5 yards a carry for the game, rushed for 3 TDs, and completed 15/21 passes for a sparkling 71% completion percentage. All of that was enabled by physical and effective offensive line play.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington
UW’s Psalm Wooching sacked Stanford QBs three times last Friday night.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

As I consider the game, I’m reminded of the finest comedy trilogy of the 80s: Back to the Future. The main character in the movie, Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, had his whole life hindered by the fact that his father George had never stood up to the high school bully, Biff Tanner. However, after some hilarious hijinks involving a time machine, a mad scientist, a sports betting almanac, and a car full of heaping cow manure, Marty convinced George to take on the bully. When George finally laid out Biff with a right-handed roundhouse, Marty arrived back to his original timeline to find that his entire life’s trajectory had changed and that Biff now worked for his father.

The moral of the story is that to be the best, you have to beat the best. Not just squeak by the best. Not just get over the best. Not just stand up or survive the best. You have to beat that bully down.

Prior to Friday night, the Huskies had lost seven of the last eight to Stanford. That hideous streak culminated in 2011 when Stanford destroyed the Huskies in Palo Alto by a score of 65-21. In that one, Stanford put a physical thrashing on UW resulting in a school record 446 yards of rushing offense. This came one year after UW had been shut out 41-0 by Stanford in Husky Stadium and just one week after UW had re-entered the top 25 for the first time in two seasons.

While nobody on the current Washington roster was there for that experience, the legacy of physical dominance that Stanford had asserted over UW had to be addressed. Stanford was the Biff to UW’s McFly and would continue to be the bully on the block until they were beaten at their own game. And so it was. The 38-point margin of victory was not only the largest that UW had ever achieved over a top 10 team, it was also the largest that they had ever beaten Stanford by. Ever.

Where the Huskies go from here remains to be seen. Beating Stanford to a pulp threw one big monkey off of their collective backs. Having won a game in Arizona the week before was another such monkey. But there are many more streaks to end and milestones to reach before this team fully arrives. The 12-game losing streak against Oregon is top of mind for everyone that cheers for the Purple and Gold.

Can this UW team continue to answer those challenges? This Washington team is different than teams we’ve seen in the past. There is an edge to this team. They are skillful, deep, and bad-tempered. In front of them lies a great opportunity to make a move to the next level, becoming serious playoff contenders. They seem motivated to seize it.

Had they not made the statement that they made on Friday, that opportunity might not look quite as tangible. By putting the Cardinal through the beatdown that they did, the Huskies left no doubt that the mantle in the North had been passed. And it wasn’t done by default or due to a decline of the incumbent. It happened because the Huskies went and took it with a national audience as their witness.

That matters.