Battle in Seattle: Stanford football faces the ultimate tipping point at Washington

Sept. 23, 2022, 12:25 a.m.

In only its third game of the 2022 season, Stanford football (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) finds itself facing the ultimate tipping point.

Sitting at .500, a win against No. 18 Washington (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) this weekend would grant the Cardinal a winning record for just the second time since last October, with the most recent being their season-opening win this year against Colgate (1-2, 0-0 Patriot League). But a loss would place them at 1-2, and has the potential to send them spiraling with two road games in the following three weeks against teams formerly ranked in the top 11.

With a new-and-improved Stanford team that has faced the two extremes in Colgate and No. 7 USC (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12), uncertainty defines their chances. Even history perpetuates the middle ground — the Cardinal and Huskies have split their meetings all-time, with each team holding 44 victories over the other, along with four ties, dating back to 1893.

However, the two football programs enter this week’s game at very different places, and the events of recent weeks have left Stanford feeling like all odds are against them.

“We just gotta deal with the cards you’re dealt and keep it pushing, and deal with the  adversity that you face and make the best of the situation,” said senior wide receiver Michael Wilson in this week’s press conference.

Stanford was unable to keep up with a high-octane Trojan offense in their last outing, losing 41-28 to USC. The Cardinal then lost starting guard Branson Bragg to retirement, and will now have to take the field without junior running back E.J. Smith, whose injury could potentially keep him out even beyond this weekend’s contest. And it certainly doesn’t help that the early Week 3 bye week came so soon.

“Hate the early by week,” said head coach David Shaw. “Whatever rhythm you have, you kinda have to restart, because you’re not too far into the season. So that’s one thing, that we have no momentum and Washington’s coming off a great win. They’ve got a lot of momentum playing at home again. We’re going on the road for the first time during the season.”

In contrast, the newly-ranked Huskies are riding the ultimate high, fresh off a commanding 39-28 win over then-No. 11 Michigan State (2-1, 0-0 Big 10). If the recent win serves as any indication, Washington will be one of the toughest offenses to contain, a concern that should be glaring for a Stanford team that allowed USC to score five touchdowns in as many drives to open their last game.

The Huskies rank top 10 in the country in yards per game, first downs and third-down conversions. At the helm of the offense is quarterback Michael Penix Jr., whose Pac-12-best 1,079 passing yards and 10 touchdowns have propelled him into the Hesiman conversation. 

“Very explosive, athletic quarterback that can make all the throws. He’s got a big-time arm,” Shaw said about Penix Jr. “This kid’s got talent, it’s been talked about for a long time. So it’s gonna be a challenge for us to keep him contained and then really play these receivers tight. These guys are making a lot of plays and it’s gonna be on us to keep those explosive plays to a minimum.”

Needless to say, leaving Seattle with a win this weekend will be no easy task for the Cardinal. But at least they know exactly what they have to do to win. Addressing the shortcomings of their sole loss this season, the team knows their golden ticket to victory lies in the turnover battle.

“It just comes down to eliminating those turnovers and just being more smart with the football,” Wilson said.

The Cardinal committed four turnovers against USC, two of which came on the Trojans’ two-yard line — and turned what could have been a single-possession game into a 35-14 halftime deficit. Defensively, they could not take the ball away from — much less, slow down — the USC offense. This time around, it has been made clear that efforts are in place to change that.

“We can’t come away with zero or one turnover and still expect to win the game,” said senior inside linebacker Levani Damuni. “So, you know, we gotta come up bigger there for sure. And we made that a big emphasis in practice too this week. Just always punching at the ball, always just practicing those good habits so we can implement that in the game. Turnovers are huge for sure.”

Even in spite of the direction each team is trending, in spite of the injuries, in spite of the untimely bye week and in spite of the schematic matchup, Stanford knows they’re right where they want to be. Adversity is nothing new, but just as they made it clear all off season, how they’re handling it is something they’re ready to show the world.

“We definitely know that this is a game that we’ve gotta win and we’re gonna practice hard and we’re gonna do the things that we need to do to put ourselves in the best situation to win,” Wilson said.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PT on Saturday in Seattle. The game will be televised on FS1.

Zach Zafran is the managing editor of the sports section. He is a sophomore from the Bay Area, who is majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. Zach has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE, and you can find him around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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