Stanford faces its first road game when it plays a Thursday night nationally televised game against Washington on Sept. 27.
More significantly, it will be the first road game for Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes. Nunes has been efficient, if not spectacular, in the Cardinal’s first three games, including the upset of USC. His best asset has been his poise, and it remains to be seen whether he can exhibit the same composure in a hostile environment.
The Cardinal would prefer not to have to rely on Nunes’ passing to win the game, hoping the running game that has been so effective against the Huskies the past few years will be enough to control this year’s meeting as well.
The Cardinal had a school-record 446 rushing yards in last season’s 65-21 romp again Washington. But three things are different this time. First, although the Cardinal’s running game has been productive this season, it has not been as overpowering as Stanford had hoped or as overpowering as it was last season. Second, the Cardinal does not have the offensive weapons to put up 65 points on the Huskies this season, primarily because Andrew Luck is no longer around to provide a consistent passing attack and make big plays. Third, Washington’s run defense seems to be a little better than it was a year ago.
Being better than last season is not much of an accomplishment because the Huskies’ run defense was so poor last season. But with Justin Wilcox as the defensive coordinator this season, the Huskies are putting up some resistance against the run. Nonetheless, the Huskies are still vulnerable against the run, and the Cardinal should be able to exploit that weakness.
Nunes merely needs to be enough of a passing threat to make Washington respect the pass.
The other question is whether Stanford can handle success. Its 21-14 victory over USC showed the Cardinal can win without Luck, but now the Cardinal must show that it can avoid an emotional letdown and maintain that intensity. Luck provided the consistent excellence at the quarterback position to prevent a letdown the past three seasons.
Having a bye following the USC game, giving the Cardinal five extra days to get over the USC game, should benefit the Cardinal, especially the Stanford defense.
With the Cardinal offense no longer equipped to put up big numbers, the Stanford defense assumes a greater responsibility for the Cardinal’s success. It was outstanding against USC, shutting the Trojans out in the second half and preventing Matt Barkley from being effective. But defenses typically perform better at home, and Washington quarterback Keith Price may provide a bigger challenge than Barkley. Probably the second-best quarterback in the Pac-12 (after Barkley), Price is as accurate as Barkley, and he is more mobile, making him more difficult to sack. Stanford’s success against Barkley was chiefly the product of its effective pass rush, and the Cardinal must apply similar pressure to Price.
The Huskies are unlikely to have much success running the ball against Stanford, and the Huskies have yielded eight sacks, so there is reason to believe Stanford can get to Price, despite his mobility.
If Stanford avoids an emotional letdown and Nunes plays with poise and avoids major mistakes, the Cardinal should win.
–Stanford is likely to be without No. 2 tailback Anthony Wilkerson, who has a lower leg injury. Although Stepfan Taylor gets the bulk of the carries, his backups typically get significant work in the Cardinal’s run-based attack. It means Kelsey Young and Ricky Seale will play a bigger role, and those two have combined for just five carries in the first five games. Despite Wilkerson’s injury, David Shaw seems reluctant to use freshman Barry Sanders this season. Unless an unusual situation occurs, Sanders will redshirt the season.
–Stanford has dominated Washington with its power running game the past three seasons. Before setting a school record with 446 rushing yards last season, the Cardinal had 278 rushing yards in a 41-0 victory over Washington in 2010 and ran for 321 yards in a 34-14 victory over then-No. 22 Washington in 2009.
–Stanford’s wide receivers were a concern when the season started, and that concern remains. Only 18 of the Cardinal’s 49 pass completions have gone to wide receivers. TB Stepfan Taylor leads the team in catches with 10, and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are the top two in receiving yards.
SERIES HISTORY: Washington leads 40-38-4. (last meeting: 2011, 65-21 Stanford)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Cardinal offense has been efficient, but it has not been nearly as explosive as it was last season. Stanford has run the ball fairly well, especially late in games, but it has not been as dominant on the ground as the Cardinal had hoped or expected. Stepfan Taylor has been a workhorse, averaging 102.3 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry on 22.3 carries per game. He averaged 18.6 carries last season. He figures to get more work against Washington with the Huskies’ suspect run defense and the expected absence of backup tailback Anthony Wilkerson. QB Josh Nunes has avoided major mistakes, but he has completed just 53.4 percent of his passes, and the Cardinal has not been efficient on third down or in the red zone. Big plays out of the passing game have been rare.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense has been outstanding, especially against the run. Its front seven is among the best in the country, and its depth and talent at linebacker is unmatched. Stanford ranks third nationally in run defense. USC rushed for just 26 yards against the Cardinal, and that included a meaningless 30-yard run by Curtis McNeal on the final play of the first half. Pass defense is still the Cardinal’s defensive weakness, but cornerbacks Terrence Brown and Barry Browning have improved since last season and new safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards have been better than expected. Reynolds and Richards already have combined for five interceptions, two more than the Cardinal’s talented safety duo of Delano Howell and Michael Thomas had all of last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “If you want to be good at something, you have to concentrate on the work. You can’t concentrate on the achievements. You can’t concentrate on the pats on the back. You can’t concentrate on the (trophies), necessarily. You concentrate on the work, and that’s what we’re trying to teach our guys. (Beating) USC can’t be a goal. It’s a process on the way to our goals. We accomplished one. OK, great. What’s the next one?” — Stanford coach David Shaw.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK’S GAME: Stanford at Washington, Sept. 27 — Stanford is 3-0, including 1-0 in the conference. Washington is 2-1, with wins over Portland State and San Diego State and a loss to LSU. This is the Huskies’ Pac-12 opener. Stanford has won the last four games against Washington and six of the past seven. Washington had won 20 of the 22 games before that against Stanford.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford wants to control the game with its power running game, and if it can do so, the Huskies’ defense figures to get worn down over the course of the game. It will also keep Washington QB Keith Price off the field. The Huskies don’t figure to be able to run the ball effectively against the Cardinal, and if Stanford can apply a pass rush on Price, it will prevent him from making big plays in the passing game and may force him into some turnovers. Stanford QB Josh Nunes does not need to do anything spectacular, but he does need to avoid turnovers and convert third-down situations. K Jordan Williams needs to regain his confidence and hit his field goal attempts. He missed all three of his attempts against USC.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy — Thomas and Murphy have combined for 8.5 tackles for losses and 3.5 sacks, and they need to apply a pass rush while keeping Washington QB Keith Price in the pocket.
TEs Levin Toilolo/Zach Ertz — They have combined for 16 receptions, 265 receiving yards and two touchdowns. They have been the Cardinal’s most reliable receivers, especially on third down.
TB Stepfan Taylor — Taylor has averaged 102.3 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry over the first three games, and the Cardinal will give him the ball often in the fourth quarter if it has the lead. He had 27 carries against USC, including 11 in the fourth quarter.
QB Josh Nunes — He is not Stanford’s best player, but he is certainly its most important player. He has completed 53.4 percent of his passes, which needs to improve, and he has six touchdown passes with three interceptions. He showed an elusiveness when forced to run against USC that no one knew he had.
–TE Zach Ertz was named the John Mackey tight end of the week after making three catches, including one for a touchdown, against USC on Sept. 15.
–TB Anthony Wilkerson is doubtful for the Washington game because of a lower leg injury.
–FB Geoff Meinken is questionable with a knee injury.
–TB Stepfan Taylor was named the Maxwell Award national player of the week after rushing for 160 yards, catching five passes and scoring two touchdowns in the 21-14 victory over USC.