View from the Booth: Cardinal head north to hush the Huskies

Sept. 23, 2022, 1:30 p.m.

A fortnight removed from a 41-28 loss to then-No. 10 USC, Stanford football (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) will hit the road for the first time in 2022, heading north to take on No. 18 Washington (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) in Seattle. 

Saturday night’s game is a real barometer for this year’s vintage of Cardinal football. The Huskies lack the sheer offensive talent of USC, but deserve their ranking after dominating then-No. 11 Michigan State in a 39-28 win last Saturday. Make no mistakes about Washington — this is a good football team and a tough road environment. But, this is a game that Stanford should be competitive in. After all, the Cardinal’s road to bowl eligibility may well require winning games on the road in places like Seattle, South Bend or Pasadena. 

In many ways, both the 2020 and 2021 Cardinal were defined by their performances against the Huskies. In 2020, Stanford’s pandemic road warriors pulled off a gutsy 31-26 win in Seattle versus a ranked UW squad. The Cardinal did it the hard way: Washington furiously rallied from a 31-10 lead, kicking the ball back to Stanford with eight minutes to go after making it 31-26. They wouldn’t touch the ball again, as Stanford masterfully killed off clock. That game turned the season around for Stanford: after enduring an uncertain start to the year, Stanford would go on to win four straight on the road playing physical, fundamentally solid football. 

In contrast, last year’s contest sums up the struggles of 2021. The Cardinal were not able to establish much of a run game, and consequently, a floundering offensive performance allowed a struggling Washington team to stay in it. After Stanford’s offense could not put the Dawgs away, the Huskies struck in the final thirty seconds to steal a 20-13 win. That was the last close game Stanford participated in —  their season went off the rails the moment Washington’s wide receiver Jalen McMillan hauled in the winning score in front of the Red Zone. 

Barometer game, then. How does Stanford fare coming in? Well, at the very least, they’ve had time to prepare. Stanford was off last Saturday, with their one bye week falling Week 3. I take major issue with the schedulers giving Stanford a bye this early in the season — asking players to go ten games in a row without break increases injury risk and is at odds with the team’s academic commitments as the academic year has not yet begun — but the break has given Stanford plenty of time to scout and scheme. 

That said, the time off has not been without incident: senior guard Branson Bragg, who missed the first two games with a serious concussion, announced his retirement from football. Our best to Bragg — who is on track to graduate this year with his degree in mathematical and computational science — for making such a difficult decision. 

Before the bye, Stanford fell to USC in a game that gave plenty for Cardinal fans to spend 14 days digesting. Perhaps counterintuitively, given the 35-14 halftime score, I came away from the game even more excited about this Stanford team. Let me try to explain. We knew coming into the year that the Stanford offense, behind star junior quarterback Tanner McKee, would be good. We also knew the defense was a question mark. 

What do we know now? Well, the offense could be something special. The headlines postgame lauded USC’s star transfers, and they were electric. That said, Stanford carved the Trojans defense and moved the ball at will. Until a pair of sacks on the Cardinal’s final possession, Stanford averaged over six yards per play against USC! Those are elite numbers. Unfortunately, Stanford was bitten by a mix of turnovers and poor red zone execution (and perhaps a couple of unlucky replay reviews that exacerbated both). 250+ yards on the ground, another 220 in the air… on another day, the ball bounces differently and Stanford is right there with USC deep into the fourth quarter. 

On the flip side, the defense struggled. Massively. Five USC touchdowns in as many possessions as the Trojans averaged over 10 yards per play and did not even reach third down for the first third of the game. Their ground game hurt an undersized Stanford front, and the sheer speed of their shiny new wide receivers hurt the talented Cardinal secondary. Let’s not sugarcoat — that first half was tough for the Stanford defense. 

USC was a game of extremes for the offense and defense, but what does that net out to? I think something positive. Stanford’s offense is for real, and if their defense can improve even slightly, the Cardinal can score enough to beat anybody. And the defense should improve: Stanford will not face the talent or depth of USC’s receivers for the rest of the year. Senior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly got burned by USC’s Jordan Addison on a long touchdown — few receivers in the Pac-12 will do that to Stanford’s star cornerback. Consequently, the Cardinal can play with more aggressive box counts on defense to slow the run, trusting the secondary to hold, which, combined with growing experience in a young defensive front, should lead to improvements as the year goes on. 

I’m buying Stanford stock after the USC game. The Cardinal face a tough stretch over the next four games, visiting Washington, Oregon and Notre Dame, and hosting a tricky Oregon State. But if Stanford can split the four, a seven or eight-win season is very plausible. Given Stanford’s bye, the offense’s showing against USC and Washington coming off of a field-storming, emotional win, I’m cautiously optimistic going into the cauldron that is Husky Stadium. Here are the keys for Stanford to turn my optimism into a 2-1 record. 

  1. Keep the scheme fresh

Against USC, David Shaw debuted elements of a new offensive scheme known as the slow mesh. The slow mesh is a variation of the run-pass option (RPO) so prevalent in college football and was introduced by Wake Forest last season, who rode the unique scheme to a school-best 11-win season and divisional crown. 

The slow mesh differs from a traditional RPO in the time the quarterback has to read the defense. Whereas traditional RPOs rely on split-second reads, the slow mesh sees the quarterback hold the ball against the running back for around two seconds, before making the decision to pull and throw or hand it off. 

The new system represents a significant departure from Shaw’s traditional, pro-style offense. Indeed, Stanford was the first outside of Wake Forest to adopt the scheme when it debuted versus USC. Moreover, the system suits Stanford well. The delayed read puts a lot of pressure on opponent defensive backs, and if even one hesitates in response to the run fake, Stanford’s talented and deep pool of receivers will get open downfield. Further, it can breathe new life into Stanford’s run game, which was anemic last season, by lowering box counts and keeping opponents guessing. Both junior running backs E.J. Smith (who will miss Saturday’s game with an injury) and Casey Filkins averaged over 4.5 yards per carry against USC — 50% better than what Stanford averaged last year. 

Schematic evolutions like the slow mesh make Stanford much harder to prepare for — Washington has to refocus and learn a novel scheme in a week after an emotional win. When asked about the new wrinkles in a press conference last week, Shaw mentioned the Cardinal have been working on it for a while, implying that perhaps this new look is here to stay. 

  1. Execute in the red zone

Against USC, Stanford’s inability to execute in the red zone precluded the Cardinal from turning productive possessions to points and making the game a competitive shootout, as on another day it would have been. Key turnovers — an intercepted fourth down fade from McKee to senior wide receiver Elijah Higgins and a fumble by E.J. Smith — hurt Stanford dramatically, but the red zone issues go beyond two plays. Trouble finishing drives plagued Stanford going back to last year: 10 drives in plus-territory at Arizona State yielded just 10 points, and settling for field goals at Washington State meant the Cougars stayed in a game that Stanford early on seemed poised to dominate. 

Historically, Stanford’s red zone attack has leant on two key pillars: power run concepts and the fade. Neither of these plays truly play to the strengths of Stanford. Stanford’s struggles running power from the I-formation or ogre package are well-discussed, and it is no coincidence that at times last week, short yardage runs came from the shotgun (including both Smith’s five-yard touchdown run and his fumble). Meanwhile, the fade has become predictable, and Stanford’s talented receiving corps perhaps lacks a physical mismatch or fade specialist like JJ Arcega-Whiteside ‘19, making the play far from automatic. 

As these two red zone staples have become less effective, each red zone possession has become that much more difficult. Can Stanford find a new wrinkle? In the past, the Isaiah Sanders ‘22 read-option or the Arcega-Whiteside fade emerged midseason as major staples inside the plus-20; there’s no shortage of skill position talent to provide Stanford with ammunition near the goal line this year. 

  1. Situational D

Stanford’s defense is unlikely to win Saturday’s game at the line of scrimmage. Washington’s quarterback, transfer Michael Penix Jr., has already thrown for over 1000 yards and ten touchdowns against just one pick. On the ground, the Huskies feature an average rushing attack that will challenge Stanford’s inexperienced defensive front. The home team will move the ball quite a bit come Saturday.

To that end, Stanford’s defense must be opportunistic: force takeaways, toughen up in the red zone and get off the field on third down. On turnovers — Stanford is -7 on the year with only one takeaway. Early days, but improvement needed as Stanford — and most teams — historically win games when they win the turnover battle. On a positive note, for third down defense, the Cardinal were successful last time out, holding USC to a 25% conversion rate (albeit on a limited sample size). 

USC’s defense illustrates the importance of situational football. Stanford carved the Trojans up last time out, as did Fresno State last Saturday and even lesser opponent Rice, in the ground game. However, USC’s defense gets tough in the red zone and wins the turnover battle. Take their game versus Fresno State: USC forced two turnovers, and in the red zone, the Trojans twice held the Bulldogs on fourth down. The Bulldogs averaged a very impressive 6.8 yards per play (almost identical to USC), yet USC came up in key moments to produce a blowout 45-17 win.

Stanford has the playmakers in the secondary to step up in key moments. All it takes is a few timely stops, and the offense can put up the points to hand Washington a first loss of the year. 

Pablo’s Picks of the Week:

  • Stanford 34, Washington 31
  • Game I’ll be watching: No. 15 Oregon @ Washington State
  • Upset of the week: Oregon State over #7 USC. 

The Beavers are physical, the Trojans can’t stop the run and its Pac-12 After Dark in Corvallis, Ore. Buckle up folks: between the games in Seattle, Pullman and Corvallis, this is the potentially crazy week that makes Pac-12 football so fun. 

Pablo will be in the booth Saturday to call the game on KZSU

Pablo is a columnist for the sports section. You can also find him in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM. You can contact Pablo at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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