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Opponent Defensive Preview: Stanford Cardinal

Can the Huskies avoid a hangover game against a revamped Stanford defense?

Washington v Stanford Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Coming off a huge win against Michigan State, the Huskies face divisional rival Stanford to open conference play. Historically, UW-Stanford match ups have been tough battles regardless of their respective rankings, and it was common to see one play spoiler to the other’s conference title aspirations. With a revamped defensive scheme, a few key players who have been underrated, and the Huskies potentially distracted after their big win, Stanford has all the makings of a trap game.

The Scheme

Ever since the Jim Harbaugh days in the late 00’s, Stanford has been known for their particular brand of “Intellectually Brutal” football. Tons of beef in the trenches, smart and physical RBs & LBs, and versatile players on the perimeter. They embraced zagging when others were zigging. I-formations, 3-4 defense, 2-way players, etc.

Those days seem to be behind the Cardinal. Longtime defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has revamped the Cardinal defense after a few years of regression and an inability to reload the DL with the types of athletes that made the 3-4 work. Instead, Stanford is running a version of the 2-4-5 that should look familiar to UW fans. To cover up their DL deficiencies, Stanford is only playing 2 true DL on the interior while keeping their 3-4 style OLBs on the edge of the defensive front in their new EDGE position (sounds familiar?). These EDGEs will continue to play from a 2-point stance and drop into coverage at times, but they are also asked to play like 4-3 DEs.

From a play calling and coverage perspective, Stanford is still a pressure-oriented defense. They will bring pressure from a variety of angles and a bunch of different off-ball positions. To maximize their options, Stanford will play a lot of 1-high shells with extra players in the box to scheme open. The DL will be more focused on winning 1v1s than in the past, but there are still elements of their 3-4 scheme that have carried through to the new system, and there will still be situations where it’s their job to protect the LBs and allow them to make plays.

Key Players & Personnel

When it comes to personnel, its all about the secondary. Kyu Blu Kelly is their star in the defensive backfield. As a preseason All-Pac-12 selection, the expectation is that Kelly is their go-to lockdown CB. He might be the only Stanford defender that Husky fans have heard of before, but that’s largely because NFL hype has followed him for the last 2 years, but he’s never strung together a complete enough season to warrant early draft consideration.

Kelly isn’t alone in the backfield. Seasoned vets Kendall Williamson and Jonathan McGill are both incumbent starters who will also be joined by Patrick Fields who is their first DB off the bench (or starting nickel DB). Fields’ path to the Pac-12 was similar to Bookie Radley-Hiles; former multi-year starting DB at Oklahoma who is looking for a fresh start and opportunity to show the NFL that they’re worth taking a shot on. With that level of depth and experience, Stanford will be facing our explosive passing attack in a strength vs strength match up.

Up in the defensive front, as we mentioned earlier, depth of talent and experience will be a concern for Stanford. They’ve made reasonable improvements over last year’s terrible 237 rushing yards allowed per game and 14 total sacks, but it’s still an area that UW will need to take advantage of. Our run game hasn’t seen the same type of revival that our passing game has, and controlling the LOS in the run game was something that we struggled with against Michigan State. Progress in this area will be important.


Stanford’s defense is not the same vaunted sack machine that it was a decade ago, but its also quite a bit better than it was last year. It’ll be a match up of strengths between the UW passing attack and Stanford’s secondary, but UW’s receiving corps should still have the advantage of depth of talent with up to 7 or 8 WRs or TEs who are thought to be reliable targets. If Stanford gets aggressive with their pressure and coverage, I’d expect more of last week’s game plan that focused on shot plays and max protections. If not, the run game should be available for Wayne, Davis, and Newton.