There is no easy way around this game for Washington. If they do not win, they will bring a 2-2 record into back to back games against Oregon and USC. In all likelihood, that means a 2-4 record, with all four losses against ranked teams that the Huskies were never expected to beat. And that’s what makes this such a tough game for Coach Sarkisian. For the season to be successful, winning this game is incredibly important, but at the same time no one can truly expect the Huskies to score more points than the Cardinal.
Sure, the game is a hyped-up blackout at CenturyLink field, but only a little over 52,000 tickets have been distributed. Yes, Washington will be getting back linebackers Nate Fellner and Jamaal Kearse, and wide receiver Kevin Smith from injury, but starting offensive linemen Colin Tanigawa and Erik Kohler are still out, Tanigawa for the season. If the Huskies are going to pull off this upset, they will have to play at a level that they have not reached so far this season, and that is worrying.
For Justin Wilcox and the Huskies defense, this game is a chance to make a statement. The defense has been very solid thus far, a vast improvement over last season, but if Stanford is somehow kept under 30 or so points, it will be clear that the days of losing to Stanford’s power running by 30+ points are over. Thing is, there’s no way to be sure that Wilcox and his crew have reached that level.
Opponents to Watch
Stepfan Taylor, Senior Tailback
I know that every single preview of this game will mention Taylor, but considering he is the single most important individual on this team, it would be foolish not to discuss him here. His running style is extremely purposeful in that he hits the hole quickly, only cuts or jukes to make specific defenders miss, and keeps his feet churning for extra yards once contact has been made. Despite that between-the-tackles prowess, Taylor also possesses surprising quickness and even straight-up open field speed, as demonstrated by this long touchdown run against USC. When he sees daylight, he accelerates with what I can only imagine is in the neighborhood of 4.4 speed. Considering that Stanford’s offensive line is, as always, very talented, those traits have led to consecutive seasons of at least 1100 yards rushing and double digit touchdowns. Coach Shaw also does a great job of getting Taylor involved in the passing game, especially off of screens. The Huskies will have to have great discipline to keep him under control. If they fail, they will not win this game.
Chase Thomas, Senior Linebacker
Thomas only has one sack on the year. Thing is, it was a sack of Matt Barkley during the Trojan’s final drive of their 21-14 loss. Last year, Thomas had 8.5 sacks. The year before that, 7.5. The guy gets to the quarterback, and with the Husky offensive line limping into this game, that is an issue. Think about it. Washington started the season with two sophomore first-time starters at the tackle spots in Ben Riva and Micah Hatchie, and now they’d love to return to that situation, as Riva is still out with a broken forearm. Center Drew Schaefer is seriously the only current starter on the line that was expected to start in the spring. Against a Stanford team that is strongest on the defensive line and linebacker positions, that is a recipe for disaster, and Chase Thomas should be considered one of the main ingredients.
Elements to Victory
Giving Keith Price a Chance
I thought about saying that the Huskies need to establish the run, but realistically, that is just not going to happen. Stanford allowed USC to gain 26 yards rushing on 28 attempts, good for .9 yards a carry. Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal were the players carrying the ball for the Trojans, and the thing is, if either of those two somehow made their way onto the UW roster, they would start immediately. While it’s likely that limiting future opponents to less than a yard per carry is unrealistic and maybe even impossible, that statistic helps to show that the Huskies will struggle to run the ball behind an offensive line that got zero push against LSU. All that can really be asked of this ragtag unit is that they hold off the Stanford pass rush long enough to give Keith Price a chance to win this game with his arm. If Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are able to chase Price around the backfield like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo did in Baton Rouge, the Huskies will absolutely lose.
Making Plays on Defense
It is doubtful that the Washington defense will be able to shut down Stepfan Taylor and the Stanford offense completely. While Justin Wilcox’s unit has been very solid thus far, they have not shown that they are capable of putting up zeros. What the defense has shown this season is an ability to make plays. Whether it’s a forced fumble or a picked off pass, if the Huskies can manage to steal possessions away from the Cardinal, they may just have a fighting chance. While it is a little foolish to try to predict something as semi-random as one player forcing a fumble or picking off a pass in a specific game, watch Shaq Thompson in this one. It seems like his momentum as a contributing player has been steadily building, and I would not be shocked to see him make a signature, game-changing play sometime soon.
Numbers I Expect to Encounter
4: The sacks I expect Stanford to rack up during tomorrow’s game. I just don’t have any confidence that the banged-up Washington line can hold back a set of pass-rushers that recently made USC’s offensive look so, so inept.
2: The number of interceptions I expect Keith Price to throw. If he really is sacked four times, it will probably mean at least five or six other times that Price was pressured and hit, but avoided an actual sack. As we saw against LSU, Price is terrific at avoiding the pass rush, but all that scrambling leads to bad decision making.
25: The number of rushing yards I expect Bishop Sankey to gain during the course of the game, largely because an early Stanford lead and a general lack of success on the ground will lead Coach Sark to abandon the run early in the same way he did against LSU.
I want to believe. At the beginning of the season, I picked the Huskies to win this game. But the Stanford team I was talking about all those weeks ago was not the Stanford team I saw against USC. That team looked absolutely ferocious. They simultaneously shut down the run, made Matt Barkley look horrible, and pounded the USC defense with a heavy dose of Stepfan Taylor. So why wouldn’t they be able to shut down Bishop Sankey, make Keith Price look horrible, and pound the Washington defense with a heavy dose of Stepfan Taylor?
Stanford 35, Washington 17