As Washington State prepared for a difficult trip to Stanford in 2012, Jeff Choate, then the Cougars’ linebackers coach, put on tape of a game the Cardinal had played earlier that season.
Stanford’s opponent that day held it to 68 yards rushing on 22 attempts and 3.7 yards per play overall, handing the Cardinal one of its two losses in a season that eventually yielded a Pac-12 championship.
Indeed, Choate noticed what the Washington Huskies did to Stanford on that late-September night at CenturyLink Field — where UW won, 17-13 — and cribbed some of former UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s schemes for his own team’s use.
They worked. WSU didn’t beat Stanford that year, but played its best defensive game of the season, allowing only 256 yards of total offense in a surprisingly competitive 24-17 loss.
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“We stole a lot of the ideas in terms of some of the things Justin did when they beat them at CenturyLink in ’12,” said Choate, now Washington’s defensive line coach.
And it’s likely you’ll see some of those same ideas applied Saturday when the Huskies (4-0) host the 16th-ranked Cardinal (2-1) in their Pac-12 opener (1:15 p.m., Ch. 13).
Stanford, renowned for its physical, straight-ahead style on offense, returns just one offensive line starter — left tackle Andrus Peat — from its 2013 group. Despite that apparent lack of experience, the Cardinal still start three juniors and two third-year sophomores up front. It’s worth remembering, too, that as a result of the Cardinal’s “jumbo” packages featuring six or seven offensive linemen, even non-starters tend to see at least a little playing time earlier in their careers.
And their beat-you-up philosophy hasn’t changed. Under coach David Shaw, he of the 36-8 career record, it likely never will.
That’s just fine with Choate and UW’s veteran defensive linemen, all of whom have played in competitive games against Stanford and appear eager for the opportunity to line up and knock heads with an outfit that prides itself on power. Defensively, that might be the Huskies’ strength, too.
“Let’s go play in a phone booth,” Choate said. “Let’s find out who the tough guys are. So, I respect the heck out of that. They’ve found a great niche for themselves there. It’s worked very well. They don’t just play to that style, they recruit to that style, and I think it’s been really, really effective for them. I’m excited to see us go fit power.”
That effort begins with 6-foot-2, 339-pound nose tackle Danny Shelton, whose 7.0 sacks this season lead the nation. But his primary goal is typically to force a pair of offensive linemen in his direction, occupy their space with his mass, and allow Washington’s linebackers to tackle the ballcarrier.
“He’s a big-’ol body that can get some knock-off on the o-line,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said, “and he’s got to have a real big game for us to keep those linebackers clean so they can scrape over the top to the ball.”
Such disruption will be critical against a Stanford team that prefers to run the ball first in order to set up play-action passes to talented receivers such as Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. The Cardinal have run 190 plays through three games — 102 rushes and 88 passes.
“I’m looking forward to playing against them,” Shelton said. “They have a young group in their o-line right now, but I’m not going to take anything from them. They’re still that physical team that they’ve always been. And honestly, I don’t really see a change from last year.”
Washington’s advantage might be that its personnel have matched up well with the Cardinal the past two seasons; the Huskies won in 2012 and lost a 31-28 thriller last season in Palo Alto. Linebackers Shaq Thompson and John Timu, UW’s top two tacklers in last year’s game, are back. So are Travis Feeney and Hau’oli Kikaha, who combined for two sacks in that game, and cornerback Marcus Peters, who had a tackle for loss and an interception.
So there will be no secrets when these teams take the field Saturday.
“They’re going to line up with a lot of bodies and they’re just going to run power, they’re going to run stretch, they’re going to run inside zone, lead,” Kwiatkowski said. “They’re just going to run their runs. You know what they are. They’re just going to give you some different formations to get to them. We’ve got to get aligned, we’ve got to get knock-off and we’ve got to fit the run.”
And fit it as well as Washington and Washington State each did in 2012.