Washington vs. Stanford Might Be Another Defensive Struggle
When the Washington Huskies knocked off the Stanford Cardinal in September 2012, the two teams combined for 30 points. That's 10 and 11 points fewer than the individual per-game averages Washington and Stanford are registering early into the 2013 season.
No. 15 Washington visits The Farm in the rematch Saturday, and much has changed for both the Huskies and No. 5 Stanford in the past year.
"What happened in the games [previously], there's not a lot of carryover [to this season]," Stanford head coach David Shaw said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
Indeed, the Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown in last year's meeting, despite rushing for 446 yards en route to 62 points the year prior.
Stanford's diminished offensive output was partially because Andrew Luck was no longer manning the quarterback position, and partially because of a defensive resurgence at Washington that has carried over into 2013.
"We knew they were going to be seeing a more sound, physical, athletic defense," Shaw said.
And as good as the Huskies were last year on that side of the ball—they held teams to 357.4 yards per game—this year's unit is better.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox ushered in an immediate cultural change that manifested in one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in recent memory.
"Obviously from two years ago we've made significant changes on the defensive side of the football," Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Washington's transformation from allowing over 50 points three times in 2011 to holding teams to 10.8 points per game this year is nothing short of astounding.
"I've seen this defense be very structurally sound. You can tell guys know their jobs," Shaw said. "You see them playing smart, sound football. They have good athletes, that allows those guys to play fast and play aggressive."
Sarkisian touted Wilcox's innovation during July's Pac-12 media day.
Among the changes he's made this season is moving 5-star 2011 signee and sophomore Shaq Thompson from safety to linebacker.
Thompson has flourished in his new role, accruing 26 tackles and using the speed that originally made him a defensive back to chase down running backs for minimal gains.
Thompson is one of several notable linebackers tasked with slowing down an impressive offense taking to Stanford Stadium this weekend. Teammates junior John Timu and senior Princeton Fuimaono have combined for 53 tackles.
Stanford's defense, which was among the nation's best a season ago, remains one of the most talented in college football. That starts with the linebacker corps of seniors Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and A.J. Tarpley.
The Cardinal are giving up 19.5 points per game, but have faced a different offense each week this season: the pass-happy attack of San Jose State, Army's triple option, Arizona State's spread and the air-raid offense of Washington State.
Saturday, Stanford sees a Husky football team operating under a newly-implemented hurry-up, no-huddle, featuring equal parts pass and rush.
"Washington's had great success [running a hurry-up offense]," Shaw said. "It fits their quarterback, and it fits what they do."
Quarterback Keith Price is completing better than 72 percent of his pass attempts with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. Stanford's sole touchdown against the Huskies last season came on a Murphy interception of Price.
Murphy had another interception-for-touchdown in Stanford's Week 5 romp over Washington State.
Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason dials up aggressive blitzes, evidenced by the team's nine sacks and 26 tackles for loss through four games. With Murphy coming from the outside linebacker position and Ben Gardner off the edge at defensive end, Stanford boasts one of the most difficult-to-block front sevens in the conference.
The pressure generates interceptions for a greedy Stanford secondary, captained by 2012 Pac-12 interceptions leader and senior safety Ed Reynolds.
However, Washington will counter the pass rush with the nation's leading rusher, Bishop Sankey. If the Cardinal limit him, they dictate the game's tempo.
Likewise, the Huskies are faced with controlling the flow by slowing down a retooled Stanford offense. That starts with shutting off dual-threat sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan.
"The biggest [change from last season] is the most obvious, which is Kevin Hogan, starting with his mobility. Kevin's mobility changes things," Shaw said. "Not everybody has to be wide-open. If guys are covered, he can take off and run."
Sarkisian recognizes the dynamic Hogan brings to the Stanford offense. Last year, the Cardinal started Josh Nunes against Washington, and the now-retired quarterback went 18-of-37 with an interception.
"It's a very mature group now from they were [last year]," Sarkisian said. "They pose a great deal of challenges for us."
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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