Amid all of the untimely sacks, turnovers, three-and-outs and other missed scoring opportunities for this sputtering Washington Huskies offense, one constant has prevented them from succumbing to a lopsided loss.
That is, simply, the defense.
And if the Huskies are to find themselves in position to defeat the No. 10 Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on Saturday night — Washington enters the game as 18-point underdogs — they will again need their defense to carry them in the same way it has through the first six games.
Three of those games, of course, resulted in losses — but only by a combined 15 points. The Huskies, for all of their youth and inexperience, have at least had a chance to win every game they’ve played.
But no team in the Pac-12 presents as much of a threat to end that streak as Stanford, which has averaged 48.5 points in four conference games and is again stocked with behemoths on the offensive line, an ultra-talented tailback who also returns punts and kicks (Christian McCaffrey), and a fifth-year senior quarterback (Kevin Hogan) who completes 65.9 percent of his passes and has thrown only three interceptions in six games.
“Everybody knows this: Stanford is as good as anybody out there in terms of their lines,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “They are physical and they are playing as good as anybody in the country right now.”
And if that’s a little surprising, considering how inept Stanford’s offense appeared in a 16-6 loss at Northwestern to begin the season, then it’s no more surprising than the defensive numbers the Huskies have posted this year despite losing four starters to the NFL draft.
Halfway through the season, Washington’s defense ranks 25th nationally in yards per play allowed (4.68), 16th in scoring (16.8 points), 16th in yards per rush allowed (3.11), and tied for eighth in preventing touchdowns in the red zone (opponents score touchdowns on only 36.36 percent of their red-zone trips against the Huskies).
Those numbers help explain why the Huskies have been able to compete with every team on their schedule despite scoring just 25.7 points per game and running fewer offensive plays than all but one other FBS team.
“The thing that’s so interesting about defense, you can play 70 really good snaps and (if on) five somebody breaks down, and that’s 35 points, and all of a sudden it looks like you’re not playing good defense,” Petersen said. “So that’s what’s so hard to play championship-quality defense. If we can keep staying on point and not lose our focus, that’s what we’ll need.”
They’ll need at least something from their offense, too. It’s still not clear if starting quarterback Jake Browning will be able to play after injuring his right throwing shoulder late in last week’s 26-20 loss to Oregon.
Petersen said Browning was at practice this week and attempted a few passes, but also said earlier this week that backups K.J. Carta-Samuels and Jeff Lindquist would get a decent number of practice repetitions, too.
If Browning doesn’t play, it seems more likely that Carta-Samuels would start in his place, because he was the one who took over for Browning after his injury last week.
“It’s just going to be another team. We’ve just got to look at it as another team,” sophomore receiver Brayden Lenius said. “They play man, so that’s more 1-on-1 coverage and more chance to get the ball up and go downfield.”
Stanford’s defense, UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said, will “force you to earn everything. Nobody’s getting any kind of trick plays, guys are well covered, there’s not busts in coverage, they fit their gaps. They make you earn everything you get out there.”
WASHINGTON (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) at No. 10 Stanford (5-1, 4-0)
7:30 p.m., Stanford Stadium
TV: ESPN. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7 FM
The series: Washington leads the all-time series 41-40-4.
What to watch: Huskies tailback Myles Gaskin became the first true freshman in school history to rush for 100 yards or more in consecutive games, topping that mark in a win over USC and last week’s loss to Oregon. He’s at 498 yards rushing through six games. … The Huskies could benefit from the return of tailback Dwayne Washington, who injured his knee in pregame warmups last week and did not play. If he returns to the lineup, he’ll give the Huskies an important weapon not only in the backfield, but also in the passing game, as well. … Slowing Stanford’s offense will be a tremendous challenge. The Cardinal throws the ball almost as often as it runs it, and sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey is one of the best offensive players in the conference — and he leads the nation in all-purpose yards. The Cardinal average 6.72 yards per play, which ranks 17th nationally. … Senior QB Kevin Hogan has thrown 12 touchdown passes and 3 interceptions this season. … Stanford starts four fourth- or fifth-year players and a sophomore on its offensive line, including left guard and Puyallup High grad Joshua Garnett. … Washington lost 31-28 in its previous trip to Palo Alto, California, in 2013, and lost 20-13 to Stanford at Husky Stadium last season.
The pick: Stanford 31, Washington 13.
Will he play? And if he does, will he be effective?
Suddenly the Huskies’ most consistent offensive player.
Missed past game after injuring knee during warmups.
If Huskies are to succeed offensively, it has to start up front.
Steady senior is good passer, but also hard to tackle as a runner.
Sneaking into Heisman Trophy conversation with big games.
Leads team with 70 tackles.
Has 31 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks.