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How Washington shut down Stanford and Christian McCaffrey, in 3 steps

Here’s how the Huskies made one of the country’s best programs look completely overwhelmed on offense.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

After a preseason of hype, the Washington Huskies had a pretty quiet start to their season. Everything was on schedule, with blowout victories over non-conference opponents and a survive-and-advance overtime outcome at Arizona. They managed to get back under the radar, despite a top-10 AP ranking.

That set up the world to be shocked when UW took on the Stanford machine at home.

Beyond the 44-6 final score or the eight sacks the Huskies inflicted on Stanford’s vaunted OL, the numbers that Heisman contender Christian McCaffrey managed in this game tell the starkest story.

His offensive production: 17 touches, 79 yards, 4.1 rushing yards per play, and zero touchdowns, the worst numbers of his career, other than a 3.8-yard average in a 113-yard 2015 game against Notre Dame and a 2014 game in which he only had a couple touches.

Here’s how Washington shut down the machine.

Step 1: Cheat the edge

It seems coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski learned from the Kansas State gameplan for bottling up McCaffrey, as UW turned to a similar strategy to keep the explosive back under wraps.

Stanford loves to line up in massive “Ogre” formations and load the field with big bodies, making it hard for the defense to prevent creases McCaffrey can run through. The program has made tremendous hay by lining up and running power over anybody. With McCaffrey in the backfield, that gained some added upside, due to his speed and agility.

Here’s how Washington addressed that. Watch No. 32, Budda Baker, near the bottom of the screen before the snap:

The Huskies are playing the Cardinal run game “outside in,” looking to keep the ball contained within a tight space. That way, linebackers and safeties can focus on beating blocks and taking down McCaffrey, rather than chasing him to the edge.

UW played an eight-man front against Stanford’s Pro-I formations, but instead of using the eighth man stacked behind the linebackers, they’d bring him off the edge. The Cardinal blockers regularly failed to account for these edge pressures. The Huskies’ unblocked corner or safety would then punish McCaffrey for any hesitation by bringing him down from the side, as Baker did here.

Step 2: Don’t get spread out

The downhill running game out of the I-formation is just one of the Cardinal’s many facets. They also have a lot of spread sets, which can be equally devastating in the run game and useful for involving backs in the passing game.

Against the spread sets, the Huskies would replace a defensive lineman with a fifth defensive back, then move the free safety close to provide extra numbers in the box.

You can see the boundary safety drop down late, and both he and the other side’s nickelback are looking to keep the ball contained within the hash marks, where the front six can do its work. Stanford runs a zone read, and the read player (the one QB Ryan Burns is looking at before deciding whether to hand the ball off or not), Connor O’Brien, takes away the outside QB run and funnels McCaffrey inside.

Washington wanted the game to be determined in the trenches for a reason: its defensive tackles are exceptional. They consistently won their battles against the Cardinal interior. In the clip above, you can see middle LB Akeem Victor (No. 36) waiting for McCaffrey in the B-gap, with only a hopeless attempt by Stanford RG Johnny Caspers in his way. Caspers was too busy fighting to help root out Washington tackle Vita Vea (No. 50) to concern himself with Victor until it was too late.

Stanford recognized Washington was going to bring extra help all day long, so the Cardinal began to line up three WRs on one side, to force the Huskies to drop their field (wide side) safety and be undermanned on the boundary (the side near the sideline). But the Huskies didn’t bite; they continued to drop the boundary safety and rolled their linebackers to the field to stop the quick passes:

On this play, Stanford tried to punish the Huskies on the weakside for rotating their LBs to the trips receiver set, but that boundary safety drops in late again to shore things up. You can even observe the cornerback at the top of the screen giving up the quick slant route in order to ensure McCaffrey doesn’t get outside.

By routinely dropping into this coverage, even against trips formations, Washington took the risk of tight ends being covered by linebackers.

Their success with Step 3 allowed that risk to pay off in a major way.

Step 3: Win up front

Washington played things very simple in the defensive backfield, with the intention of giving their front a chance to win the game. They played some basic cover 3, which put them at risk of getting abused up the middle by the tight ends and slot WRs. Stanford recognized this and went after them as much as they could, landing this punch in their first possession after halftime:

Stanford is overloading that single deep safety in the seams by running the TE up one seam while the second receiver in the trips set runs up the other.

Since Washington is playing cover 3, those linebackers are drifting backwards and not matching those routes tightly. The deep safety gets over-stressed with two vertical routes on opposite ends of his deep zone.

The only problem with this play? How long it takes to develop. Stanford couldn’t block the Huskies up front.

Kwiatkowski boasted to Bruce Feldman that Washington didn’t even blitz once, save for a call that was negated by a penalty. That’s mostly true; they mixed in one or two pressures he may have not counted, but their alignment made it easy for the Huskies to get free rushers on tackle-end twists without having to commit more than four rushers to get home.

After landing that deep shot up the seam, Stanford tried to utilize its trips formation again on fourth-and-2. A stunt (when two pass-rushers cross in front of each other) by strongside LB Psalm Wooching ended the drive and put a punctuation point on the victory:

McCaffrey sees the inside linebackers sitting in zone and tries to run a route into the flat. He doesn’t seem to see Wooching stunting from the opposite end of the formation into the vacant B-gap. I’m guessing the QB didn’t see him coming either.

When your defensive ends are really a pair of athletic outside linebackers, standing up on the edges where they can stunt and change direction more easily, it’s easier to create the effects of a blitz without actually sending extra pass-rushers.

The whooping that Washington’s front four put on Stanford’s OL both in the run game, where even Cardinal double teams couldn’t win ground, and in the passing game, where four-man pressures totally wrecked Stanford’s protections, decided this game. Credit to Washington for keeping McCaffrey in check and allowing a rising unit to make a big statement.

Next up is a different challenge in Oregon, but here’s guessing the Huskies will find ways to ensure their advantages up front aren’t wasted.