Back from a bye week, Stanford football needs to deliver. With a negative record both overall and in conference play, the Cardinal (3-4, 2-3 Pac-12) face an uncertain future and the prospect of a bowl-less postseason. Meanwhile, Washington (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) enters Saturday’s game on a one-game win streak after only narrowly beating a winless Arizona team — for the entire first half, the Huskies were unable to put up points on the board.
Which 3-4 team wins out to level their overall record? Noah Maltzman, Drew Silva and Ells Boone explore the offensive line’s inconsistency, red zone stands and home field advantage.
Cybele Zhang [CZ]: In this week’s press conference, head coach David Shaw referred to the offensive line as the “microcosm of our team right now.” The Cardinal offense begins here in the trenches, but the position group has had its ups and downs — Shaw noted, too, that they’re “striving for consistency.” What needs to happen so that Stanford can reestablish the run game and bounce back from its dismal 2.2 yards per attempt average at Washington State? Does the probable return of sophomore running back EJ Smith change things?
Noah Maltzman [NM]: Unfortunately, reestablishing the run game is not as simple as getting Smith back. The run game starts and ends with the offensive line, and, as Shaw said, the group very much represents the team as a whole. Some games the O-line is dominant; for example, against Oregon, probably the best defense on the schedule, Stanford’s offensive line only allowed four negative-yard plays. However, other games are abysmal — like against Arizona State, where the offensive line could only help muster 40 total rushing yards. In order to reestablish the run game, Stanford needs to ensure it wins the battle of the trenches against Washington. Smith can only help so much, but it is up to the offensive line to create holes for him and other rushers like junior running backs Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones or even sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee. However, this is a great match up to reestablish the rushing game. Washington so far has given up 1,495 rushing yards to opponents this season (213.57 rushing yards per game) on 4.8 yards per attempt. Stanford needs the offensive line to play well in order to run well, and Washington is a good test to see how the offensive line can recover from bad games (and a bye week).
Drew Silva [DS]: At first glance, the game versus UW looks like this is the perfect opportunity for the Cardinal to reestablish the run, as the Huskies rank second to last in the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed per game. However, the Washington State defense was not much better, and Stanford struggled heavily in that game. The return of EJ Smith will certainly add another weapon to the running game, but ultimately the offensive line needs to have the greatest impact. After shuffling up the offensive line in the Wazzu game, some consistency in both the personnel and the performance should allow Peat, Jones and Smith (if healthy) to attack a weak Washington defense.
Ells Boone (EB): As we’ve been talking about for weeks now, and, as Noah astutely noted, Stanford can’t reestablish the run until the offensive line play improves. The coaching staff made some changes against Washington State on the offensive line, which is still being solidified. Sophomore offensive tackle Myles Hinton in particular has struggled. If the offensive line can figure themselves out, the Cardinal have the horses necessary for a strong ground game. The return of EJ Smith only adds more firepower to the backfield.
CZ: UW, along with LSU and TCU, is one of just three FBS teams that has scored every time it has reached the red zone this season. What does Stanford need to do defensively to stop Washington?
NM: As said in the question, the Cardinal can not let them into the red zone; however, if Washington gets into the red zone, then it is imperative that Stanford make the Huskies attempt a field goal instead of a touchdown. Washington down the field is not as efficient as it is within the red zone, so special teams coverages (after kicks and/or punts) is crucial to ensuring the Huskies are contained before reaching the red zone. In general, covering kicks and punts will be the key to getting an advantage against Washington, but it all comes down to the defense to stop the Huskies from making too much progress down the field.
DS: Despite Washington’s red zone success, it does not have a particularly explosive offense. While the Huskies have had no problems with converting in the red zone, they have struggled to make it there. After all, this is the team that only managed a single touchdown in their season opener against an FCS team, the Montana Grizzlies. Nevertheless, Stanford will have to attempt to limit the Washington’s run game, particularly senior running back Sean McGrew, who has six touchdowns on the season. McGrew is not the most efficient runner, averaging 3.7 yards per carry, but the Cardinal need to make sure he never gets into the red zone. Stanford also should be able to get pressure on quarterback Dylan Morris. Morris has been sacked 18 times and has thrown eight interceptions in the team’s seven games this year. Don’t be surprised if junior CB Kyu Blu Kelly comes up with another big play.
EB: The key of course is to stop the Husky offense before they reach the red zone, but sometimes it is inevitable that they will make it that far. When Washington does find itself in the red zone, Stanford needs to put pressure on Morris and lock down the check-down routes. Sometimes you have to live with field goals, but this is not an explosive offense coming into Stanford Stadium on Saturday, as Drew alluded to.
CZ: The Cardinal now resume a home-heavy schedule to close the season, which features four games at Stanford Stadium in the next five weeks. Shaw said that “we have to take advantage of being home.” Can the Cardinal go undefeated at home to close the season? What factors (pros and cons) come into play when the team plays in Stanford Stadium?
NM: Stanford definitely has a good chance of closing the season undefeated, especially at home. Having four out of five of the last games in Palo Alto is a huge advantage for the team. The biggest challenge will be to close the season when No. 11 Notre Dame visits Stanford on Thanksgiving weekend. Can Stanford win? Absolutely. However, it is not likely. Playing at Stanford Stadium does not give as much of an advantage as most college teams experience when playing at home, especially against colleges with big fan bases like Notre Dame. This phenomenon was seen earlier this season during the UCLA game, where, despite it being the home opener for Stanford, the crowd probably had as many Bruins fans as there were Cardinal fans. Expect Stanford to be bowl-eligible, but going undefeated for the rest of the year may be too much to expect.
DS: After the Oregon game, I almost would have expected the Cardinal to go undefeated at home to close the season. However, following the back to back losses to ASU and Washington State, I am not sure that the Cardinal can win their last four home games, especially against Oregon State and Notre Dame. As Noah mentioned, when Stanford hosts a football program as popular as Notre Dame, it almost feels like an away game. For the Oregon and UCLA games, Stanford fans were significantly outnumbered by opposing fans excluding the student section. However, after having been on the road for almost the entirety of last season and starting this year with three away games, it will be nice for the Cardinal to play in front of their fans.
EB: Stanford can go undefeated at home the rest of the way, but Notre Dame to close the regular season looms large. The Cardinal cannot afford to look ahead on their schedule, however, as every game represents a challenge. This weekend is a winnable game against a Washington team that has greatly underachieved this season. As for the factors that come into play at Stanford Stadium, the usual home field advantages of the opposing team having to travel and play in an unfamiliar setting still hold true, but the Cardinal do not get a big enough home crowd to intimidate their opponents. Nevertheless, Stanford still should feel comfortable playing at home, which has to be a positive.
CZ: Washington has not allowed an opponent to score more than 35 points in a game since 2014 — a 82-game streak. No other team in the FBS has a current streak longer than 41 games (San Diego State). Can Stanford finally put substantial points on the board? Score predictions?
NM: Stanford 34, Washington 27 –– Washington’s defense has not been as dominant as it has been in the recent past. However, while they are far removed from the days of safety Budda Baker and nose tackle Vita Vea, they still have solid defenders like sophomore linebacker Jackson Sirmon (leads the team with 52 total tackles) and sophomore defensive Kyler Gordon (leads the team with four passes-defended and two interceptions) that may be able to stop the Stanford offense. While Washington’s sub-35 point streak will most likely not be broken this weekend, I still anticipate a Stanford win. The bye week gives the Cardinal needed rest, and getting a win against Washington, a formerly ranked team, could set the tone for the back half of the season.
DS: Stanford 27, Washington 24 –– This game will feature both the two worst rushing defenses and the two worst rushing offenses in the Pac-12. After Washington was ranked at the start of the season, and after Stanford upset Oregon, neither team thought they would have a losing record through seven games. While I don’t quite see the Cardinal scoring 35 points, I do think that Stanford has the slight edge. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some extra energy in the stadium in the Cardinal’s first home game since defeating Oregon. I expect this game to be close and would not be surprised if it was decided by a late field goal from sophomore kicker Joshua Karty.
EB: Stanford 24, Washington 17 — This is a must-win for both teams, and from a talent perspective, these teams are very close to each other. I give the Cardinal the edge thanks to superior quarterback play and think that Tanner McKee can make a play that will give Stanford a touchdown advantage. I don’t see this being a track meet, but crazier things have happened this season.