Stanford secured their first victory of the season last week against rival Cal, in dramatic fashion by blocking a PAT attempt. Sitting at 1-2, they come into Husky Stadium with a banged up and struggling defense and an offense still trying to find its rhythm.
When Washington has the ball, John Donovan will likely try to go heavy with the run game against a defense giving up 229 yards per game on the ground. Stanford has a better defensive line than you’d expect for those numbers, but have been devastated by injuries at linebacker. LB Curtis Robinson is the one to watch out for, he’s the leader of the defense. However, their best day has been surrendering 177 rushing yards to Colorado...so not great. In the secondary, they like CB Kyu Blue Kelly locking down one side, but have struggled replacing potential first rounder Paulson Adebo on the other, who opted out. Still, the secondary is the relative strength of the defense.
Stanford plays a very multiple front seven with almost WSU-like shifts and pre-snap motions and stunts for their DL. The onus will be on Dylan Morris and Luke Wattenburg to get into the right protections and not be deceived like they were at times against Utah last week. Morris nearly had a pick-6 in the first half when Utah disguised some coverage and confused him. The Huskies should try to get creative with the run game and attack the linebackers with short and intermediate passes.
Offensively Stanford has a bit more of an identity in they pass the ball more than any other Pac-12 team, but are hardly dominant. The one thing you can rely on with this offense, so far at least, is they don’t give the ball to the other team, with just one total turnover all season. They are still struggling to run the ball but RB Austin Jones is more than capable of getting tough yards between the tackles. However, where he could the hurt the Huskies is leaking out of the backfield to catch passes when the linebackers are distracted. QB Davis Mills has been decent this year, doing a good job taking care of the football and avoiding mistakes, but isn’t generating many big plays. The WR trio of Michael Wilson, Simi Fehoko, and Conor Wedington is athletic and more than capable of beating teams deep, though I am not sure they will test the Husky secondary too much.
If Stanford finds success it will be because they neutralize the pass rush of Zion Tupuola-Fetui with quick passes, and attack the young players in the linebacking corps. QB Davis Mills is a rhythm and timing thrower and can really get into a groove if things are humming along. Sav’ell Smalls and Ryan Bowman (if he plays) will need to generate a pass rush because they will do everything to keep ZTF out of the backfield. I think this will be an extremely close game with Stanford playing conservative with field position and frustrating the Huskies with their patience. They have routinely punted on 4th downs this year when in the opponents territory which has helped keep them in games. The Washington offense could have a lot of long fields to drive down.
Washington pulls it out.
Washington- 24, Stanford- 20
Over the last decade, it has felt like Stanford has been a thorn in UW’s side no matter how well the Huskies have been playing coming into the game. While that feeling has generally been rooted in reality, this year’s Stanford team retains little of the legacy that made the Cardinal such a challenging adversary. Stanford no longer boasts the strength in the trenches to establish a substantial advantage on both sides of the ball. The offense no longer revolves around big sets with multiple tight ends and power running. Most importantly, they haven’t executed with the precision one would expect from a David Shaw team.
The aspect of this Stanford team that stands out most is the poor rush defense. For a team known for being big, tough, and smart, giving up 229 yards per game on the ground markedly undermines their reputation. The Utah game painstakingly demonstrated that John Donovan will stick to the RTDB offense regardless of success rate or game circumstance. That stubbornness should be rewarded in this game and the interior offensive line will have a less prodigious challenge on its hands. The Cardinal narrowly escaped with a (largely undeserved) win in Berkeley last week due to Cal turnovers. Dylan Morris will have to take better care of the ball after he threw his first three career interceptions against Utah. If the run game functions as the stats indicate it should, he won’t have the same amount of pressure to create offense by himself.
Even Stanford’s offensive approach looks foreign to the team’s established norm. Davis Mills is a skilled QB and both Conor Wedington and Simi Fehoko bring unique talents to the pass game. Even so, it’s bizarre to see a Cardinal team averaging twice as many pass yards as rush yards. They will still line up in pro-style sets and try to run the ball with Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. The run offense has been neither efficient nor explosive so far, but we have seen that the Huskies defense tends to bring out the best in opposing rushers (to put it kindly). UW also has the best pass defense the Cardinal will see all year, so taking the ball out of Mills’s hands might make sense, even if it comes at the expense of getting it to Wedington, Fehoko, and Michael Wilson. Shaw has seen the tape and he’ll know that the offense will be better served by going back to its roots.
The relative strengths of the teams indicate that this one will be a slowed-down game where both teams run clock and possessions are at a premium. It’s harder to cover a double-digit spread when the game as a whole is lower scoring. It would be great to see the Huskies come out more aggressive, establish a lead, and force Stanford to put some air into the ball. If they do so, I can see a Husky win of two or more TDs. I think the opportunity to ground and pound will be too much for Donovan to pass up and the game will stay closer than we’d like.
Washington- 30, Stanford- 21
On paper this seems like it should be a fairly straight forward Husky win. I mean, Washington is favored by double digits. But history tells us that outside of the 44-6 demolishing that catapulted UW to a College Football Playoff berth there hasn’t been a lot of double digit Dawg victories.
Part of that has been Stanford’s ability to attack the Husky defense at the areas of greatest vulnerabilities. Washington’s base nickel defense is particularly susceptible to a team dedicated to running the ball out of power sets and giant humans lining up in the slot against our sub-6 foot nickel corner. The Cardinal recently have had both the personnel and the patience to punish Washington for their commitment to the nickel with their parade of giant targets at TE. Last year Stanford was 5/8 for 98 yards targeting Elijah Molden which was his most yards surrendered all season. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Davis Mills throws a few jump balls to 6’4 Simi Fehoko when isolated against Molden and has more success than you’d expect.
This is definitely not the Stanford defense of recent seasons but Utah was able to confuse Dylan Morris several times last week to induce poor decisions. With more tape on Morris out there for defensive coordinators to examine we may be in the phase where the burden is on Morris to counter the strategies opponents are throwing specifically to confuse him. He generally responded well in the second half against Utah but I’m still not sold that he’ll reliably be able to carry the team if Stanford sticks 8 in the box and shuts down the Washington running game.
I hope I’m wrong but I can easily envision a game where Washington moves the ball better than Stanford in the aggregate but the team repeatedly settles for short field goals early and a turnover or special teams gaffe gives Stanford a short field for the late game-winning TD. The current all-time series is tied up at 43 apiece and I see the Cardinal taking the narrow lead.
Washington- 20, Stanford- 21
Straight Up: Washington- 2, Stanford- 1
Against the Spread (-11.5): Washington- 0, Stanford- 3
Average Score: Washington- 24.3, Stanford- 20.7