The Stanford Cardinal have shown they can beat the best without having to diversify too much from the overall themes that define their team. Run hard, run heavy, run often. Play physical defensively. Replicate Jim Harbaugh's philosophy and reap the rewards.
However, there's been a degree of comfort with which they've played. They've generally been at home, playing in front of a sedate but steadying home environment. They faced a San Jose State team that gave them fits, then conquered Duke like they were Duke. Their victory over the Trojans came with USC missing their starting center and getting both their running backs banged up and ineffective throughout. It's safe to say the Cardinal have enjoyed their fair share of luck in running to 3-0 and a top ten ranking.
The luck probably begins to run out on Thursday night against the Washington Huskies. Or it might not; Washington is pretty roughed up and their running back situation is dire. But if Keith Price can get loose and create, it could.
Washington is just as banged up as Stanford, particularly along the offensive line, but they now face an offense that might be best suited to counterpunch their front seven--a quick hitting, pass-oriented spread attack that will force Stanford's defenders into coverage a little bit more than they'd like. Although they had an easier time with USC, a lot of that had to do with Matt Barkley's inability to adapt to pressure in the pocket. Keith Price is more of a mobile presence who can scramble and create outside the pocket, making him a danger if he's able to escape the initial rush.
Obviously, none of this helped last year when Washington got gobbled up by Stanford, but despite their current top ten ranking, this is far from the same Stanford. The Cardinal rush attack might be the focal point, but Stanford's rushing attack is down to 77th in the nation in rushing yards per game and 66th in rushing yards per attempt. You might say that USC is the cause for these rushing woes, but the Cardinal actually performed their BEST in that game (37 carries, 202 yards) with Stanford's defense kicking USC's offense off the field over and over. This stalwart defensive performance ended up wearing down their defensive front in the second half.
If Stanford can establish their ground game the way they did against the Trojans, the game is probably over, because Washington's defense isn't good enough to hang for an entire game with a powerful run game (see: LSU). But if they can at least stack the box and force the Cardinal to make throws to win, well, Josh Nunes has to prove he can make them.
If you haven't watched Josh Nunes this season, you're probably familiar with two plays he's made: The old man's juke to pick up a first down on three Trojan defenders, and the game-winning score to Zach Ertz. Other than those plays, he's been very unimpressive. Nunes has completed 53% of his passes (bottom 20 in FBS) and game manages an offense that produces about 200 passing yards a game.
But what might matter the most might not have anything to do with numbers. It might have to be with what Nunes can't do, which is be Andrew Luck.
"We put a lot on him," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "We were changing plays, checking plays, putting three different front plays in the huddle, and he could throw all that out and change to a fourth play."
Judging from the results, Stanford rarely took a snap against a bad look.
"He did not make a single mistake in that game," Shaw said. "That is phenomenal."
Stanford's rushing success was largely a reflection of Luck's ability to put the offense in the best position possible.
"Whenever we feel like we're running the ball really well, we stay with it," Shaw said. "We had a really good passing gameplan for that game, but we just put it in our back pocket."
Luck might have had a pedestrian game by passing standards, but he was totally in command in dissecting and dismantling Washington's defense with constant line changes up front. Nunes hardly has that same capability, which will make dominance a little bit more difficult. If Stanford can't power at the point of attack, you have an inexperienced, inaccurate quarterback playing on the road in a hostile environment, which is a pretty daunting scenario no matter how you slice it.
It is true that Stanford beat USC without needing their quarterback to do much. Their defense carried them through most of the game, and their offense eventually took them home. In this game, the offense is going to have to show more, because Price and a hostile road environment might just be enough to unsettle the young quarterback and a still-developing offensive front.
If they can do the same on the road, the path for Stanford to another Pac-12 North duel with Oregon is paved clear.
SB Nation Snippet
Josh Nunes is making his first road start and will be tested by the atmosphere of a pro stadium packed by one of the more intense fan bases in the Pac 12. The best way to quiet the crowd is to score early, avoid sacks or big defensive plays, and don’t give the 60,000 in attendance a reason to cheer. That includes eliminating false starts and keeping audibles to a low number. I am sure there will be a heavy dose of Stepfan Taylor early and often to set the tone, but Josh Nunes has to come out of the gates sharp and focused because a crowd like this one can overwhelm a young player if he allows it to become a factor. Stanford’s defense can also play a big role in this area by not allowing any big plays from Keith Price an company. Speak of the devil...