This weekend, we'll find out if the Washington Huskies are for real. After a big season-opening win over Boise State, the Huskies traveled to Illinois and won there too. The 4-0 Huskies have beat up on opponents, averaging 39.8 points and giving up just 10.8 points per game, which is fourth-best in the nation.
But this week they'll have their biggest test yet, when they travel to No. 5 Stanford.
Stanford is, by far, the best team Washington has faced, and the Huskies are going to have an uphill battle to stay undefeated.
What can the Huskies do to pull off the upset? The first, and most important, thing is the run game. Bishop Sankey has been terrific this year, rushing for 607 yards and five touchdowns. He averages 5.8 yards per carry and put up an impressive 208 yards against Illinois.
He's been a rock for the Huskies the past two years, and his presence allows quarterback Keith Price to flourish. He had a school-record 40 carries last week, and that's the type of workload that Sankey needs for the team to be successful.
But Sankey is not going to have it easy. The Cardinal know how to stop the run. They held Arizona State stud Marion Grice to just 50 yards rushing. Plus, according to Ted Miller of ESPN, the Cardinal are one of six teams since the start of last season that have held their opponents to under 100 yards on the ground per game. They have allowed the fewest yards per rush in the Pac-12 and are seventh in the nation in forcing runs for loss.
The Huskies would benefit from getting Sankey out in space, away from the perils of the line, and utilizing screen plays and pitch plays. Linebacker Trent Murphy has 3.5 TFL, and Sankey won't get much room to run between the tackles. It's essential that Sankey gets going, and the Huskies need to move the ball on the ground. Tosses, pitches, misdirections and the like are all good ways to give Sankey room to run, without having to barrel through the tough Stanford line.
If they don't, then Keith Price is going to struggle. Price is finally starting to realize his lofty potential, and he has improved in nearly every stat category. He's thrown for 1,044 yards, nine touchdowns and just two picks. His throws average 9.32 yards per reception, and he has a 72.3 percent completion rate, a nearly 12 percent increase from last season.
But Price is improving, in large part, because of Sankey. Without Sankey's high volume, Price wouldn't have as much room to throw. Price has had an inconsistent career, and it's no surprise that his numbers have increased since Sankey has become the feature back.
If Sankey struggles, so will Price.
If the Huskies can't get it going on offense, they'll have to rely on their defense to keep things close. Luckily, their defense is really, really good. The Huskies give up only 3.8 yards per play. They have a swarming front seven, and Shaq Thompson has been a revelation at linebacker.
The linebacking core is really the strength of the defense. Thompson is an athletic marvel, and his speed causes a lot of problems for opposing offenses. John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono have combined for 53 tackles.
They'll be tested against Tyler Gaffney, a fine running back in his own right, who has rushed for 377 yards this season. Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson average 218 yards rushing per game. The Huskies have been great on defense, but this if the first sustained rushing attack they've faced all year.
They should be able to stop Kevin Hogan, a fine game-manager, but nothing more. The Huskies held Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, probably the best quarterback they've faced all season, to just 9-of-25 passing. Scheelhaase is better than Hogan.
It's quite possible that this game is going to be a low-scoring affair. These are two really good defenses.
For the Huskies, it's all about sticking to run. Yes, Stanford is great at stuffing the run, but the Huskies are successful when Sankey is running the ball well. Sankey, a future starting NFL running back, is the key to their offense. Grinding it out with Sankey, letting the defense do their thing and having Price complete key passes is the way to go.
The Huskies have a rough few weeks ahead. After playing Stanford, the Huskies will have to face Oregon and then Arizona State. We'll know a lot about the Huskies after that. There's a lot of talent on this team, but Stanford represents the biggest test yet. Are the Huskies a decent team that's beaten up on some bad teams and an over-hyped Boise State team? Or are they a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 throne? Remains to be seen.
But if they can somehow establish the run against Stanford and let their defense go to work, then they have a legitimate chance against the Cardinal.