With four of the last five Pac-12 North division titles won between them, a November matchup between Stanford and Washington looked like a de facto Pac-12 Championship semifinal as recently as two weeks ago. Instead, both come into Saturday's showdown at Husky Stadium off losses and looking up at Washington State in the divisional race.
Still, the stakes are no less great. Either could still win the division, though Saturday's matchup is essentially an elimination game. Both teams lost in upsets a week ago for their second Pac-12 blemish, with Stanford failing to stop a Washington State rally in a 41-38 defeat at home.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Washington's offensive anemia contributed to a 12-10 stunner against Cal. The preceding losses render Saturday's evening affair something of a must-win.
Stanford at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 9 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington -10
Three Things to Watch
1. In search of offense
Washington's offensive woes at Cal led to coach Chris Petersen pulling quarterback Jake Browning for Jake Haener. The move did nothing to shake up a sputtering Huskies side but did signal how inconsistent Washington's been throughout the campaign. While losing running back Myles Gaskin to injury curtailed Washington to an extent, Kamari Pleasant showed promise in his most action of his career. Running isn't necessarily the issue for the Huskies.
Neither is having effective options in the passing attack. Aaron Fuller is among the Pac-12's most reliable targets, and Ty Jones is one of the conference's most dangerous deep-ball threats. For Washington, the challenge is moving the ball consistently while maintaining aggression in play-calling.
Stanford's up-and-down offense struggles with a similar problem. The Cardinal looked poised to rout Arizona State two weeks ago but became stagnant in the fourth quarter. Likewise, they scored just 10 points after going up two touchdowns last week over Washington State. Bryce Love's nagging ankle injury contributes to Stanford's inconsistency.
The offense that establishes any kind of rhythm on Saturday, while facing an opposing defense that's among the more talented in the Pac-12 (distinction that applies to both Stanford and Washington), will have the upper hand.
2. Explosive experts
In a game likely to be dominated by defense, one or two explosive plays can make the difference. Washington's Jones and Stanford's J.J. Arcega-Whiteside are among the very best big-play receivers in college football, capable of altering the course of a game with one catch.
Arcega-Whiteside will need support from a diverse corps of pass catchers around him. Trenton Irwin, Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson are all dependable mid-range threats and will be crucial to create space against Washington's outstanding secondary. One-on-one matchups between Arcega-Whiteside and excellent Washington cornerback Byron Murphy may determine Saturday's winner.
Likewise, Stanford's young rising star in the secondary, Paulson Adebo, is critical in man-coverage against either Jones or Fuller. Adebo neutralized Arizona State's N'Keal Harry in the Cardinal win two weeks ago.
3. Pivotal special teams
Standout special teams have been a hallmark of David Shaw-coached Stanford teams, and 2018 is no exception. Punter Jake Bailey is one of the nation's best at flipping the field, a key strategy for any Cardinal contest. Placekicker Jet Toner is also among the best at his position, this year connecting on 9-of-10 field-goal attempts.
Washington has experienced the downside to special teams missteps, with a would-be game-winning field-goal attempt at Oregon on Oct. 13 going awry. In the same vein, Fuller's 28-yard punt return in the fourth quarter last week at Cal gave the Huskies an opportunity to win.
Because of the talented defenses playing in this one, the value of special teams is heightened. Points may come at a premium, including field goals, and punting will establish invaluable field position.
Both Washington and Stanford have, at times, looked like the best teams in the Pac-12. In other instances, each has looked (and been) wholly beatable. Washington returning home to Husky Stadium could be an important lift after last week's stagnant road trip, and this venue was a house of horrors for Stanford its last time visiting two seasons ago.
Stanford needs to find a way to mount a consistent offensive attack against Washington's stout defense. Love played one of his most important games of the 2017 season against the Huskies, but his inability to reach his peak in 2018 limits the Cardinal's explosiveness.