Huskies aim to remain in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 North title
Sept. 30, 2016, marked a changing of the guard atop the Pac-12 North. The Stanford Cardinal, winners of of three of four conference championships from 2012-15, traveled to Seattle that Friday night and left on the wrong end of a complete deconstruction.
Washington's 44-6 rout of Stanford that night was little more than a speed bump on the Huskies' way to their first conference championship since 2000, and a berth in the College Football Playoff — a milestone that eluded Stanford the year prior. Fast-forward 13 months, and Washington and Stanford again meet on a Friday night.
This time, it's Washington coming in as the hunted. Head coach Chris Petersen's squad controls its path to a second straight Pac-12 title, with a pretty basic formula: win out. Checking in at No. 9 in the College Football Playoff poll, with two marquee games in the final three of the regular season, plus a hypothetical Pac-12 Championship Game, Washington's path back to the Playoff appears equally basic.
But it doesn't matter if the Huskies cannot win on The Farm Friday night.
Washington at Stanford
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 10 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Washington -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Physicality up front
In the run-and-gun Pac-12, four of the last five conference championships belong to program built on identities of strength, size and physicality. Stanford flipped the script earlier this decade when former defensive coordinator Derek Mason unveiled a game plan that punched Oregon's hyper-speed spread in the mouth. Combined with offensive lines loaded with NFL talent, which paved the way for downhill rushing attacks, the Cardinal made throwback football a winner in the modernized Pac-12.
Stanford hasn't deviated from that approach, evident in the offense building around running back Bryce Love (above, right), the nation's leading rusher. He operates behind one of the best front fives in college football. Likewise, defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is having an All-America-caliber season, keeping in line with recent tradition for Stanford players up front.
Chris Petersen brought a similar approach to Washington and upped the ante. The Huskies feature a talent-rich offensive line, along with one of the most impressive front sevens anywhere in college football.
"What doesn't get talked about enough, defensively: They're big," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "They're big, they're physical, they're athletic. Even some of the guys who were there when coach Petersen got there got bigger."
Stanford's bigs and Washington's bigs will set the tone earlier. The Huskies imposed their will on the Cardinal front a season ago in Seattle, but this Stanford bunch is more experienced.
2. QB questions
Love is putting up astronomic numbers for Stanford, and a big game Friday with the nation watching would virtually ensure a red carpet for him at the Heisman Trophy ceremony next month. But what the Cardinal's loss at Washington State proved last week is that the running back needs the help of a credible attack from the quarterback.
K.J. Costello went just 9-of-20 for 109 yards on the Palouse, one week removed from Keller Chryst going 16-of-33 for 141 yards and, despite throwing the game-winning touchdown at Oregon State, struggled much of the night. Love missed the Oregon State game and was limited to a season-low 69 rushing yards at Washington State. Against one of the best defenses in the nation, particularly against the run, Stanford must establish its pass as a credible threat.
Using the big bodies at tight end and wide receiver that Stanford has in abundance should prove critical.
3. Keep away from Dante
Dante Pettis ran into NCAA record books last week, tying the mark for punt return touchdowns in a career. Pettis has a remarkable four on the season. He's a game-changer for the Huskies both on offense and special teams, making for twice the trouble when opponents game plan for the Huskies.
Keeping the ball away from Pettis in punt coverage is critical, and Stanford has yet to allow a return of 20 or more yards this season. The Cardinal also counter Washington's big-play passing threat with one of the most talented secondaries in the nation, featuring playmaker Quenton Meeks. Fellow corner Alijah Holder is out for the season after getting injured against Oregon State.
Washington's a team especially adept at patiently setting up the long passing play with a peppering of runs, so limiting the tandem backfield of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman is just as critical to Stanford's success on defense as limiting Pettis' game-changing routes.
Stanford's offensive woes do not bode well for a matchup with the nation's second-best scoring defense. Washington allows just 11.1 points per game, even in defeat giving up only 13 to Arizona State. The Cardinal are limping into this pivotal matchup, both figuratively and literally with Bryce Love fighting the lingering effects of an injury.
Still, Stanford has been adept at rising to the occasion for these kind of marquee matchups, particularly at home. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson should have something in store to test Washington early, but the Huskies' own defense will eventually give the offense opportunities to break out.
Prediction: Washington 28, Stanford 17