Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Pac-12 Journey 2013 Game 46: Now we find out if Washington is for real

Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times (left), Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports (right)
Who is playing?

The 15th ranked Washington Huskies and fifth ranked Stanford Cardinal.

Where is this game being played?

Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California.

What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?

7:30 PM (PT) on ESPN.

What is the point spread?

Stanford is favored by seven and a half points (-7.5)

What should I watch for when Washington has the ball?

Last week Arizona provided a small fragment of a blue print to beat this great Washington offense. Arizona played very well up front and prevented Washington from developing large running lanes, used terrific speed from its linebackers to cover the field sideline to sideline, and was very sound in the secondary to limit big pass plays. Basically the equation is stout defensive line play + fast linebackers + disciplined secondary = opportunities to slow down one of the nation's best offense. That formula sounds an awful lot like something Stanford replicates in every game.

As productive as Washington has been this season their offense is a bit of an unknown for this specific game. The Huskies offense has been very good this year but they have not faced a defense approaching the caliber of Stanford. Boise State is 59th in the nation in yards per play allowed at 5.35 and Illinois is all the way down at 101st with 6.13 while FCS Idaho State is truly terrible having allowed 49+ points nine times last year. You could say that Boise State and Illinois are way down in the defensive standings because they played Washington but both teams have had some disturbing defensive outings outside of their dates with the Huskies. Boise State gave up 522 yards and 41 points in a loss to Fresno State while Illinois has given up at least 400 yards and two of their other three games including 407 yards and 34 points to FCS Southern Illinois. Arizona on the other hand has been one of college footballs stingiest defenses and even after playing the Huskies the Wildcats are still sitting 18th in the nation in yards allowed on a per play basis.

Last week Bishop Sankey needed 40 carries to reach his average production while Keith Price had his most inefficient game of the season and was never able to blow the top off the Arizona defense. It's okay to partially blame that on poor weather conditions in Seattle but to suggest that Washington would have ripped Arizona from end zone to end zone had it been bright and sunny is a blatant fallacy. It's no accident that Washington had its worst offensive output of the season against the best defense its played and now they have to go on the road to face a premier defense in a hostile environment after finally putting a blueprint on how to be beat them on tape for everyone to watch. Another thing Washington hasn't done yet this year is go on the road and overcome a loud and hostile environment. The Huskies did win at Illinois but that game was off campus and was played in a somewhat sparsely populated NFL stadium. Stanford certainly does not have the reputation of an intimidating road environment but Washington returned some of its visitor's section ticket allotment and Stanford is still expecting a sellout in spite of that. Washington will be facing a full on campus road crowd for the first time and with a late kickoff the crowd should be liquored up and very boisterous even for Palo Alto standards.
What should I watch for when Stanford has the ball?

Washington's defense has been dominant this season. The Huskies are ranked third in the nation allowing just 3.8 yards per play and a meager 10.8 points per game. The Huskies front seven has been particularly noteworthy yielding just 3.41 yard per rush attempt while racking up 13 sacks. One thing we know about Stanford's sledgehammer offensive line is that they have built up quite a habit of making defensive lines who think they are really good realize they are anything but. The Huskies can just ask Arizona State or their cross state rivals Washington State how much fun it is to go into a game with Stanford feeling great about its defensive line and coming out with question marks all over the place.

Stanford actually gets some reinforcements up front as All-American David Yankey returns after missing the WSU game with a personal matter. Yankey's return should allow Stanford to debut its nine offensive linemen formation and use it often to try to soften up this Washington defense. Just like on defense, the Cardinal will try to get nasty and impose their will up front. It is imperative therefore for Washington to win on first down and make this game rest on the arm of Kevin Hogan. Hogan has proven to be a high quality Pac-12 caliber QB since becoming a starter midway through last season but there are elements of his game that are problematic.

Hogan has a long throwing motion with a big windup and a longer than ideal follow through. This tends to telegraph his passes as a defender (particularly a deep safety) who has his eyes in the backfield can see Hogan winding up and can react to his throw quicker than a QB with a very short and compact deliver like Keith Price. People love to romanticize Stanford's defensive effort against Oregon last year but they conveniently tend to forget that Oregon effectively shut down Stanford's offense as well. Last year's Ducks were a very fast and opportunistic defense that liked to attack the line of scrimmage to stop the run and make quarterbacks uncomfortable. Against Stanford, Oregon held Hogan to 5.9 yards per pass attempt and picked him off once while forcing two fumbles out of his hands and recovering one of them. All totaled, Hogan ended up with a 35.9 out of 100 Quarterback Rating that night against the Ducks. That is a blueprint Washington can replicate but they can only do it if they win at the point of attack on first and second down.

Who should I bet on and who will win?

There is every reason to expect Washington to hang in this game and perhaps win it but doesn't it seem like the Huskies are due for a bit of a correction? The Huskies have out gained their opponents so thoroughly so far and might be due for some extended hiccups on offense. Between not yet facing a tremendously physical offensive or defensive line and not yet playing a true on campus road game, Washington hasn't had a chance to have its weaknesses exposed and get them corrected before this big game. Washington is a very different team now than in years past but it is impossible to ignore a 1-9 record on the road against top five teams since 1994. Put that all together and you get a convincing Cardinal victory. Stanford rides its linemen and a strong performance by Hogan to a 34-24 victory.

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