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Opponent Defense Preview: Stanford

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A few weaknesses are showing for the first time in a while but it’s still, ya know, Stanford. Get cocky at your own risk.

NCAA Football: Stanford at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It feels weird, thinking back on it, that Stanford has been really good for almost a decade now.

I say this because I remember watching the ‘06 game at Husky Stadium where the Cardinal got their only win of the season, to which my mom reacted, “How does that even happen? Stanford sucks.”

And then they got good.

While some people (mostly wishful thinkers) like to take the their bumps in the road this year as a sign of their long-term decline, I hate to disappoint you but that’s proooobably not happening.

On the plus side, they’re a little bit bumpy now, and now is when our Dawgs play them. That’s all that matters, right?

Personnel

Stanford is kinda interesting this year.

They’re still, ya know, Stanford, but their trademark overpowering physicality seems to have taken a dip. This is true where it matters on defense as well.

From film against USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Wazzu, they look less airtight than in the past. Whether that’s the loss of guys like Solomon Thomas up front or the retirement of Cardinal and Husky legend, Randy Hart, who knows, but it’s shown up clearly.

They have had more difficulty just tackling well; nowhere was this more apparent than against USC, where it was common to see the front seven give up chunk yards against the Trojans after running backs would run through two or three or even more Stanford linemen and linebackers. Similar things happened against Oregon, where the Cardinal’s weakness was exacerbated by the shiftiness of the Ducks’ zone read game combined with Royce Freeman’s strength.

Ironically, perhaps Stanford’s biggest defensive weakness is what they’ve become famous for on offense: the power run. USC absolutely destroyed them in that area and then, supplemented with Darnold’s magic arm, came away with an easy victory.

Whether by power or zone, the Cardinal are giving up over 170 yards per game on the ground. That’s not typically what one associates them with.

The area of the field that looks the weakest for them would probably be in the flats, where — whether by pass or by run — opponents seem to have frequent successful plays.

On the other hand, they’ve done quite well against pass-heavy attacks.

They had no problem against UCLA’s almost one-dimensional offense. The Cardinal were far from dominant but did what they needed to do: keep Rosen and company out of the end zone. Similarly, while Wazzu is less of a pure air raid than they used to be, Stanford limited them to 9 points less than their season average.

In a similar vein, throwing in a tight window against this secondary (and linebackers in coverage, for that matter) is quite a poor idea. An overconfident quarterback is probably this defense’s best friend.

What’s still cool about the Cardinal is the diversity of their defensive fronts. You will see everything. Three down linemen, four down linemen, two down linemen, nickel defense, dime defense. Everything.

Which brings us to the actual people to watch on Friday:

Up front, the main guy to focus on is DT Harrison Phillips. He’s a captain and one of the better players in the Pac 12, even if a bit undersized for a tackle. If there’s anyone on this squad who still maintains the famous Stanford brutality, it’s probably him. Flanking him are ends Jovan Swann and Dylan Jackson as well as fifth year senior Eric Cotton. While this unit has suffered a bit of a dip, they’re still guys who can mess up an offensive line if overlooked.

Then there’s the linebackers, where the leader of the group, Bobby Okereke, is coming off a Pac 12 Player of the Week award.

These guys are interesting because, with the two deep consisting almost solely of seniors with one junior and sophomore, they’re experienced, they’re athletic, they’re disciplined... and yet there’s a drop off from the last couple years to now.

This unit looks pretty good in pass coverage but, like stated previously, isn’t dominant against the run like they used to be. Okereke had the pick six off of Luke Falk last week and the group as a whole has helped stump pass-reliant teams. Casey Toohill had another impressive interception against Oregon.

Speaking of Oregon, another player to watch is PNW-native Joey Alfieri, who’s been an impact player for a couple years and is recognizable to those who’ve paid attention to the Cardinal during that time. He’s as likely a candidate as any to lead Stanford in tackles once everything’s said and done on Friday. Jordan Perez and the youngster of the group, Curtis Robinson, should also be in on the action.

The secondary are probably, at this point, the strongest unit of the team.

Unfortunately, they’re dealing with the loss of CB Alijah Holder, who misses the matchup against the Dawgs for the second year in a row. His counterpart on the other side of the field is Quenton Meeks. Meeks is the sort of player who will make a quarterback pay for making throws into tight coverage but can get out-maneuvered in man-on-man matchups.

Just for the quality of game, it kinda stinks that we don’t get to see Meeks and Holder together since they might be the best combo of cornerbacks in the conference — after Washington’s own. I’m not biased, of course.

Then there’s safety Justin Reid, one of Pro Football Focus’ players of the week from last game against the Cougars. This guys is nuts, if just for the amount of interceptions he gets. I swear the box score from every Stanford game this year includes at least one takeaway courtesy of Reid. Sometimes more.

Bottom Line

Essentially: Washington should probably keep doing the formula that’s been successful for them most of the year seeing as how it also happens to be Stanford’s weakness.

If things go like they have for the Huskies and Cardinal, Coleman and Gaskin in the power run could be cruel and effective. The Dawgs being able to ram the ball throw through the front seven probably won’t wear down Stanford like it wears down some teams, but it will still likely be a powerful game plan for the Huskies to follow. The Cardinal’s struggles against the ground means, if Washington has patience in that unit, they could control the game starting sooner rather than later.

Furthermore, as we saw against USC, a run-heavy offense that’s still balanced can spell trouble for Stanford. Once the run gets full steam, the Trojans were able to do a lot of damage through the air as well. Washington probably won’t be as effective in that regard, but there should be at least a few mid-range pass plays that stand out as critical junctures left open by a strong rushing attack — if all goes to plan.

On the other hand, we’ve seen how hard it is to win close matchups against these defensive backs. For the Huskies’ passing game to be effective will require a combination of things which, fortunately, the Dawgs control but which, unfortunately, they’ve had trouble with lately.

That is, Jake Browning has to be both incredibly smart without sacrificing decisiveness, the latter of which he’s had some trouble with so far. As has been demonstrated, Stanford’s secondary makes any quarterback pay for making ill-advised throws. A tight coverage battle against these guys almost always seems to be a losing battle.

Not only does Jake have to bring those traits with him, but the receivers have to be precise route-runners and, when it comes down to it, physical. Justin Reid and, to a lesser extent, Meeks, could make the Dawgs’ passing game look absolutely silly if they don’t do these things.

The matchup of Washington’s offense against Stanford’s defense should be fun for both fanbases (though hopefully more fun for those of us in the PNW); Washington’s running strength goes up against Stanford’s running weakness, while Washington’s passing not-quite-weakness-but-definitely-not-a-strength goes up against Stanford’s almost-certainly-a-strength secondary.

So while it will be fun for both sides of us to watch, that also means both sides should have some moments of pulling their hair out.

As always, any lurking Cardinal fans feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.