In advance of Saturday’s football game between Stanford and Washington, The Daily’s David Cohn chatted with Thuc Nhi Nguyen, sports editor for The Daily, Washington’s student newspaper, to get perspective from both camps. Below is a partial transcript of their conversation. For the full back-and-forth, go to www.StanfordDaily.com/category/sports.
David Cohn (DC): My first question is what are your initial thoughts on this matchup between UW and Stanford?
Truc Nhi Nguyen (TN): I think it should be a good one. Obviously there’s that possible revenge factor with what happened last season at CenturyLink. For the Huskies, it’s a chance to prove their worth against a team that head coach Steve Sarkisian called a “national championship contender.” It’ll be especially interesting to see if the Huskies can, on defense, make the switch back to defending a slower pro-style offense after putting so much effort into getting better against the no-huddle.
DC: It is interesting that you say a slower pro-style offense. Yes, Stanford will certainly take a more deliberate approach to its offensive strategy than Arizona, but the offense is not necessarily slow. In fact, against Arizona State, Stanford at times went into a hurry-up offense, a strategy that paid enormous dividends in running out to that large lead. I certainly agree that Washington has the opportunity to secure a “statement win,” playing against a national title contender and top-five ranked team on the road.
Much has been made about Washington’s struggles, particularly on the road in recent years. Do you think UW has finally bucked that trend, or is it too soon to say at this point?
TN: That’s a tough one to answer because on one hand, yes, I do feel like this team is leaps and bounds better than those in the past. This team definitely has a certain air around it that suggests a maturity and a confidence that maybe wasn’t there in the past. Going on the road to Illinois and fending off a late surge there said a lot about the Huskies, who have really struggled on the road in the past. But, with that said, I don’t want to go out and say that the UW is headed straight to the Rose Bowl or anything like that; because while this is supposed to be the UW’s year, it’s also supposed to be Oregon and Stanford’s years too.
DC: I agree with you that Washington certainly looks like a better team this year. While the home win over Boise State has lost a little bit of luster in recent weeks with Boise’s loss to Fresno State, it was nevertheless a great statement to send to the national voters. I still think Washington hasn’t necessarily proven to me that they have ended their road struggles, as I don’t think a single victory over Illinois represents a large enough sample size to overcome their recent road trend. However, UW is not short on opportunities over the next three weeks to pick up signature wins both at home and on the road, with road contests at Stanford and ASU, and a home game against arch rival Oregon.
TN: I’m with you on the Illinois game. The Huskies made it a lot harder than it should have been.
DC: Let’s talk about Keith Price for a moment. Do you think that he has improved this year, and, if so, what specific improvement has he made that gives Husky fans confidence that Price can lead Washington to a victory this weekend over Stanford?
TN: Keith Price has definitely improved this year. The numbers say it all: 72.3 percent completions, nine touchdowns, only two interceptions. He’s making smarter choices, not trying to save the game when he doesn’t have to and more importantly, not running for his life anymore. The offensive line was porous at best last year, and it went through a lot of bumps and bruises with all the injuries. It was rough, but the guys up front are better for it now because they have more experience and it’s shown. Price has only been sacked three times through four games. Price is infinitely more confident in himself, but mostly, more confident in the people around him, including the line and his receivers, so he doesn’t feel like he has to do everything. And it helps that the new offense fits him to a tee. People will always hold him under a microscope here, but for now, Husky Nation is pretty pleased with him.
DC: With good reason. As you said, Price has been brilliant so far. I believe that if Price has a solid game — no matter the outcome on Saturday — that will bode well for the rest of Washington’s season. Turning to the other contributors on offense, Bishop Sankey is an extremely talented running back. I would argue that he has been Washington’s most valuable player over the last year, and he played an enormous role in Washington’s victory over the Cardinal at CenturyLink Field last season. Outside of Sankey, can you give me another offensive playmaker that Stanford’s defense should keep an eye on?
TN: Surely, Sankey is a very special running back. He’s a workhorse and the Huskies are lucky to have him. For someone outside of Sankey, there are a lot of playmakers; that’s why Sarkisian moved to this no-huddle offense in the first place, because it would emphasize his skill players over his big guys. Although Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams are the biggest names on offense and are huge playmakers, someone to keep an eye on would be Jaydon Mickens. He’s a small guy, but he’s fast and shifty, which makes him perfect for the Huskies on bubble-screens and short passes. He wasn’t a huge contributor last season, but he’s really blossomed in the new offense lately in the slot receiver position. Price dumps the ball off to him, and Mickens does all the hard work down the sideline.
DC: Moving to Washington’s defense, the Huskies gave up only six points on defense to Stanford last season. However, this Cardinal offense is the farthest thing from the unit, led by Josh Nunes, that took on Washington last season. Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan is a perfect 9-0 as the starting quarterback for Stanford, and he brilliantly exploited the WSU defensive strategy by completing long touchdown passes to Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector. With the loss of Desmond Trufant — now with the Atlanta Falcons — how can Washington’s defense stop an offense that is running on all cylinders right now?
TN: If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be sitting at a college newspaper and I would be on the sideline next to Justin Wilcox. The challenge that Stanford presents is most certainly the biggest one the Huskies have had so far this season, so Wilcox and company will have their work cut out for them. It all starts with pressure for the Huskies, so getting pressure on Hogan will be important. Wilcox has gotten creative with different pass rush packages lately, whether it’s the heavy “Flinstones” package or the speedy “Jetsons” group, and the pass rush has been slowly improving. You mentioned the loss of Trufant, which is surely a big thing for the secondary. However, it turns out that the Huskies have the best pass defense in the conference right now, which was surprising to me when I saw it this week. Marcus Peters and Greg Ducre have been a good pair at corner and Sean Parker has made a habit of coming up with big interceptions at big times; so, if the Huskies want to win Saturday, they’ll need more of that from their senior captain.
DC: Do you have any final thoughts on this contest before we get to predictions for Saturday’s score?
TN: Hit me with the predictions.
DC: My prediction for Saturday’s game is a Stanford victory, as the Cardinal win 38-21. However, this score is by no means a negative comment on Washington. In fact, I think Washington will have a solid season after this weekend. However, Stanford has been nearly flawless in its last two games, outside of a garbage-time quarter that meant nothing. I believe that seven quarters is a large enough sample size that I can reasonably expect the Cardinal to play at a national championship level in this game. If that happens, I do not believe Washington has any chance of winning this game on the road. I definitely think that Washington has a chance to keep it close if the Cardinal are off their game, and my prediction would be different if this game was being played at Husky Stadium. However, the Cardinal haven’t lost at home since 2011, and I think their home winning streak continues this weekend.
TN: That’s fair enough. I think it’s going to be closer than you, but the Cardinal take it 41-35. The Huskies are probably the best they’ve been in a long, long time, but it’s pretty clear that Stanford is a national championship contender and operating at a level that is a little bit higher than the UW. However, if Stanford is a bit off its game, the Huskies could jump up and get a momentum-swinging play that could change everything. But that’s getting into hypotheticals. I’m definitely with you on home-field advantage for Stanford. The world outside of Seattle hasn’t always been friendly to the Huskies.
Contact David Cohn at dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu.