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Washington Huskies vs. Stanford Cardinal Preview and Prediction

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey

Friday night’s matchup between Washington and Stanford was picked as one of the Pac-12’s most anticipated games of 2016, and through the first four weeks of the season, nothing has changed to alter those expectations. The Cardinal and Huskies are ranked as top 10 teams and remain the favorites to win the Pac-12 title.

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Behind the strength of its defense and dynamic junior running back Christian McCaffrey, Stanford is off to another good start under coach David Shaw. The Cardinal have defeated three Power 5 opponents, including Pac-12 victories over USC and UCLA. New quarterback Ryan Burns isn’t posting prolific numbers, but he’s also making enough plays within the offense and minimizing the mistakes.

Washington cruised through the first three weeks of the season in matchups against overmatched opponents in Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. However, the Huskies nearly watched their undefeated season end last Saturday, as Arizona gave Washington all it could handle in Tucson before falling 35-28 in overtime. Conference play is never easy, but it’s also fair to wonder if the Huskies were already peeking ahead to this Friday night clash against Stanford.

The all-time series between Stanford and Washington is tied at 41 victories apiece, with four ties between these two programs. The Cardinal have won three in a row in this series, with the Huskies’ last victory over Stanford coming in 2012. Additionally, Washington only has two victories over Stanford since 2004.

Stanford at Washington

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Washington -3

Three Things to Watch

1. The Quarterbacks

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Washington quarterback Jake Browning was projected to have a breakout 2016 campaign after starting 12 games as a true freshman last fall. The competition will get tougher and only four games have been played so far, but it’s safe to say the sophomore is on his way to living up to those preseason expectations. Browning has completed 67 of 95 passes for 904 yards and 14 touchdowns through Washington’s first four matchups this year and has tossed only two picks. Additionally, Browning ranks among the nation’s best with a 70.5 completion percentage and already has three passes of 40 or more yards. Browning missed last year’s matchup against Stanford due to injury, so this will be his first look at the rugged Cardinal defense. The front seven of Stanford’s defense is led by end Solomon Thomas, while linebacker Peter Kalambayi leads the team with 2.5 sacks through three contests. The play of the Cardinal front seven is crucial on Friday night, as starting cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks are out due to injuries. With Stanford missing its top two corners, can Browning take advantage by attacking downfield and connecting on big plays with receiver John Ross or Chico McClatcher? To do so, Browning is going to need protection from his offensive line, which has surrendered nine sacks through four games.

On the other sideline, Stanford starter Ryan Burns isn’t posting huge totals, but he’s also delivered a handful of plays in the clutch for this offense. Through three games, Burns has thrown for 395 yards and three scores. The junior has yet to top 200 passing yards in a contest but also hasn’t made a lot of mistakes. In last week’s win over UCLA, Burns connected on a couple of key throws in the fourth quarter, including a game-winning touchdown toss to JJ Arcega-Whiteside with less than a minute remaining. Burns scored a solid victory in a tough environment (UCLA) last Saturday but the road environment at Husky Stadium is an even bigger test. And of course, Washington’s defense is arguably the best in the Pac-12. This unit is limiting opponents to 4.3 yards per play and returns a standout secondary, headlined by cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker. With the Huskies likely to focus on stopping running back Christian McCaffrey, Burns could be called upon to carry more of the workload on offense than he has through the first three games.

Related: Predictions for Every Game in Week 5

2. Stopping the Run

Containing Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey is no easy assignment. The junior is one of the nation’s top players and has recorded at least 100 rushing yards in each of the first three games. McCaffrey leads all FBS players by averaging 211.7 all-purpose yards per game and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Washington’s rush defense has been stingy in 2016, limiting opponents to 3.4 yards per carry and an average of 145.5 rushing yards per game allowed. The Huskies gave up 308 rushing yards to Arizona last week but a large chunk of that yardage came on a 79-yard run by dual-threat quarterback Brandon Dawkins. In last year’s matchup against Washington, McCaffrey was limited to just 109 yards on 23 attempts. Will the Huskies stack the box and force Stanford to throw to open up running lanes? Or can Stanford’s offensive line set the tone and clear the path for a big night from McCaffrey?

Washington’s ground attack started the season with underwhelming performances against Rutgers and Idaho but averaged at least six yards per carry over the last two weeks. Sophomore Myles Gaskin leads the team with 302 yards and is the No. 1 option for coach Chris Petersen. However, junior Lavon Coleman provided a spark with 181 yards last week and could see a few more carries on Friday night. Regardless of which running back is toting the rock for the Huskies, the front seven of Stanford isn’t going to allow much in the way of rushing lanes. The Cardinal rank second in the Pac-12 in rush defense (95.3 ypg) and have allowed only one score on the ground through three games. Will Washington get any traction or can the Stanford front seven dominate up front?

3. Turnovers and Special Teams

With a close game anticipated on Friday night, a couple of overlooked areas – turnovers and special teams – could decide this one. Washington leads the Pac-12 with a plus-nine turnover margin, while Stanford is even through three matchups. Surprisingly, the Cardinal have not recorded a positive turnover margin in a contest against the Huskies since 2011. That hasn’t mattered too much, as Stanford is 4-1 in this series since 2011. Which team can gain the edge in the turnover battle is likely to win on Friday.

In addition to stopping McCaffrey on the ground, Washington has to deal with the dynamic junior on returns. McCaffrey has returned two punts for 16 yards and three kickoffs for 64 yards in 2016. Don’t let those modest numbers fool you – McCaffrey is one of the nation’s best return men. Can the Huskies keep the ball out of his hands on returns? Additionally, if this game comes down to a field goal, Stanford has the edge here. Conrad Ukropina has connected on all six attempts in 2016, while Washington kicker Cameron Van Winkle is just 3 of 6 and missed two opportunities against Arizona. Stanford punter Jake Bailey is also off to a terrific start (45.3 avg) and has pinned seven kicks inside of the 20.

Final Analysis

This matchup should have major implications on the Pac-12 North title. And there’s also an overall momentum angle in play for both teams. Washington is a program on the rise under coach Chris Petersen and entered the year projected to have a breakout season. All signs suggest the Huskies will live up to the hype, but this is the first opportunity this team has on a big stage and chance to make a statement in 2016. Stanford is already battle tested from playing three Power 5 opponents and has established a program that reloads and contends for Pac-12 championships on an annual basis. Just one victory over Washington wouldn’t validate everything Petersen has built in Seattle. However, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get that marquee or signature win this Friday night. If there’s a time for the Huskies to score the break out win and announce to the rest of the nation they are for real, Friday night at Husky Stadium should be the perfect opportunity.

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Prediction: Washington 24, Stanford 20