Time once again for our weekly look at UW’s opponent — which this week is the Stanford Cardinal, a game set for 5 p.m. Saturday and televised on ABC on the West Coast.
And our guest this week is venerable Pac-12 writer Jon Wilner, who along with running the College Hotline blog also covers Stanford for the San Jose Mercury News.
As always, my questions, Wilner’s answers:
Q1: Obviously, there was a huge change in coaches from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw (pictured at right in an AP photo). How has the transition gone so far and are there any real noticeable differences?
A: It appears to have been a very smooth transition, due in part to Shaw’s familiarity with the team and the school (he’s an alum) – and having Andrew Luck back, of course. Shaw and Harbaugh are different personalities. Shaw is very even-keeled, but with a quiet internal fire. Harbaugh is raw, sometimes unchecked emotion – he was edgy, confrontational, while Shaw puts people at ease. On the field the biggest difference is the way the staff has tweaked the offensive playbook to rely more heavily on the tight ends. Stanford lost two productive receivers in Doug Baldwin (now with the Seahawks) and Ryan Whalen, and the replacements have struggled. But the tight ends are superb, and a big part of what they do. You can’t stop them unless you contain the tight ends.
Q2: Not sure what more else there is to say about Andrew Luck, but it seems irresponsible to talk about the Cardinal and not talk about Luck. On paper it looks like he’s been everything everyone expected. But has he been different in any way so far this season, either on or off the field?
A: On the field: Not much change, other than he is not running as much. (I’m sure Husky fans remember that touchdown run out of the spread option last year – we haven’t seen anything like that this year.)
Off the field, there are two changes: he is more vocal on the sideline and in the lockerroom, by all accounts; he knows it’s his team and that the players look to him for leadership. He’s also has come to accept his role as a wanted man by the media and by fans. He doesn’t enjoy it – he really does not like being the center of attention. But there’s a level of begrudging acceptance this season, which I think is as result of him becoming a more mature person.
Q3: Can you assess how the rest of Stanford’s offense has performed, especially a line that had to replace three starters?
A: The line has played very well considering the changes. It helps when you have two studs, guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin. There were some protection problems early on, but those appear to have been rectified, and the run blocking has been pretty solid. When they need three yards, they run over DeCastro or they run over Martin, with DeCastro pulling, and that’s a tough, tough play for defenses to stop. They also use a ton of formations with multiple tight ends — they have one set with three tight ends and a fullback — and when they overload one side it’s like an 18-wheeler coming at you. The other thing that help is Luck’s ability to feel pressure and move in the pocket to buy himself time: He’s masterful at that. And he’s so good, too, at picking up blitzes and hitting his hot reads. He makes everyone much, much better.
Q4: How big a loss to the defense was the season-ending injury to linebacker Shayne Skov and how has Stanford gone about replacing him?
A: A big loss, although we haven’t seen Skov’s absence manifest itself on the field much because Stanford hasn’t played opponents equipped to take advantage. The power running teams will test the replacements (Jarek Lancaster and AJ Tarpley), who are talented players but smaller than Skov and far less physical. But the defensive line is relentless, and outside linebacker Chase Thomas has been one of the best defensive players in the conference – and that combination has helped offset Skov’s absence.
Q5: Finally, Stanford’s defense has some really impressive numbers, such as ranking second in the nation against the run. Is that really an accurate indicator of the strength of the defense, or will Washington provide some challenges that other teams so far have not?
A: I think the defense is very good. Whether it’s as good as the numbers suggest – none of the first six opponents have a winning record — we’ll find out in the next few weeks. The line and the secondary are both very good, and Thomas is a force of nature. But Stanford typically has trouble defending in space. If Washington’s able to get its playmakers the ball on the perimeter, the Huskies should have some success. The issue for UW will be giving Keith Price time to throw against a relentless pass rush and a defensive scheme that does a fabulous job masking its intentions. Stanford throws a lot of looks at the opponent (on both sides of the ball). If the Huskies can’t decode what Stanford’s doing, it’ll be trouble.