Stanford looks to resurrect a lifeless run game against Washington

Oct. 28, 2021, 6:47 p.m.

Stanford football has endured a rollercoaster over the last two years. Decade-long winning streaks were shattered and The Axe was lost, but one thing remained constant — somehow, the Cardinal beat Washington.

And not just beat them.

In each of the last two meetings between Stanford and Washington, the Cardinal posted season highs in rushing yardage and dominated the trenches with the suffocating, trademark David Shaw brand of football that has continued to elude Stanford against other opponents.

In 2019, running back Cameron Scarlett ’19 burned over five minutes of clock in the fourth quarter with nine straight runs through the gut of an overpowered Huskies defense. In 2020, then-sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat combined for three rushing scores on Stanford’s opening three possessions, and Jones iced the game with a burst through the Washington defensive line on fourth down. 

With the past two years in mind, there’s reason for optimism as Stanford (3-4, 2-3 Pac-12) hosts Washington (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) on Saturday night off the heels of two tough losses and a much-needed bye week. Forget dreams of a Pac-12 Championship berth — the Cardinal are now in a battle just for bowl eligibility, and they won’t get there if they can’t correct troubling declines in offensive line play and rushing production. A UW team that’s struggled to stop even Stanford’s lackluster run might be the best chance to right the ship. 

“​​I think we’re capable of better,” Shaw said on Tuesday. “Every coach and player on our team thinks we’re better than our record.”

To sit at 3-4 is disappointing for a team that looked so confident after marquee upsets of USC and Oregon earlier in the season. Injuries and a brutal road schedule can certainly explain some of Stanford’s woes, but what feels more inexplicable is the decline of an offensive line and running game that was supposed to headline this year’s offense. The Cardinal sit at dead last in the Pac-12 with just 95 rushing yards per game, and the Tunnel Workers’ Union gave up three sacks in the final two drives of the one-score loss in Pullman. 

That might be cause for some bye week adjustments. Shaw indicated on Tuesday that he might continue to rotate players around the offensive line after sliding junior guard Branson Bragg to right tackle and inserting junior guard Jake Hornibrook at right guard in the fourth quarter against Washington State.

“The offensive line is kind of a microcosm for our entire team right now,” Shaw said. “We’re striving for consistency with that entire unit.”

Sophomore tight end Benjamin Yurosek (above) of the Stanford Cardinal runs with the ball after a pass reception. (Photo: BOB DREBIN/ISI Photos)

On the injury front, sophomore running back EJ Smith, fifth-year tight end/defensive end Tucker Fisk and junior inside linebacker Tristian Sinclair are probable to play. Junior tight end Bradley Archer and sophomore running back Casey Filkins are out, and fifth-year safety Noah Williams and sophomore wide receiver John Humphreys are questionable. Senior wide receiver Michael Wilson is also questionable, but Shaw said he’s getting close to making his long-awaited return after a season-ending foot injury last year.

Stanford might not need to be at full strength to stop a lukewarm Husky offense that was shut down by FCS team Montana and stonewalled for an entire half against Arizona. Washington’s dismal season has been one of the more shocking developments in the Pac-12 this year and their resume — with only wins against Arkansas State, Cal and Arizona — hardly inspires confidence. 

But in true Pac-12 fashion, there’s a bizarre caveat to the Huskies’ struggles. UW somehow boasts one of the top passing defenses in the nation, allowing fewer passing yards per game than No. 1 Georgia. The Huskies have talent up front with game wrecking outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui and in the secondary with preseason All-Pac 12 cornerback Trent McDuffie. But Washington’s performance against opposing quarterbacks might be more of a reflection of how bad the team is at stopping the run. The Huskies have given up 194 yards per game on the ground, good for 11th in the Pac-12 — above only Stanford.

It makes for a simple matchup: neither team has been able to stop the run, but the Huskies have the talent to spend most of the game locking down sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee and his receivers, who have sustained the Stanford offense. They will dare the Cardinal to beat them on the ground. 

For the third time in as many years, Stanford might have to win by resuscitating a struggling run game. Do that, and the outlook for the rest of the season becomes much rosier.

“Last year, we all just happened to know what we were doing,” fifth-year fullback Houston Heimuli said. “We were all on the same page. We were all in the flow of things. And that’s what I want to see this year, especially out of myself and a lot of us in this ground game.”

Stanford kicks off against Washington at 7:30 p.m. PT on Saturday. The game will be televised on FS1.

Per the new attendance policies of Stanford Athletics, spectators at Stanford Stadium will be required to present either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the game.

Daniel Wu '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for News and Sports. Contact him at dwu21 'at' stanford.edu

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