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Stanford-Washington might be the Pac-12 game of the year. Pay attention to these 3 keys

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The Huskies have a chance to add some substance to their sudden hype, with the reigning West Coast champ in their house. (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When this offseason’s Washington hype began, fans of rival schools — Washington State, Oregon, etc. — pounced. Here we go again, they said. Washington's getting overhyped again, they said. This always happens, and the Huskies never live up to the hype, they said.

This is sort of true, but only if you go back pretty far. In 2002, Rick Neuheisel's Huskies began the season ninth and finished unranked. The next season, Keith Gilbertson's squad began 17th and finished 6-6.

Remember when we pointed out all the things that had happened since the last time Tennessee had beaten Florida? Add a year to that. That's the last time Washington was actually overhyped.

After a 3-1 start in 2003, UW would lose 52 of its next 67. Steve Sarkisian established a much higher baseline, going 7-6 from 2010-12 and 9-4 in 2013. Still, UW was never again ranked in the preseason until starting 2014 at 25th, which isn't exactly the most hyped of ratings.

It still might feel like this has happened quickly, though. Legendary Boise State coach Chris Petersen took over in 2014 and proceeded to go 15-12, and then *poof,* they're a top-15 team? It was legitimate from a stat perspective, but some pushback was logical.

None of that matters now, though. No. 10 Washington hosts No. 7 Stanford Friday night, and with a win, the Huskies would become the Pac-12 favorite. They are 4-0, having destroyed three lesser teams and survived a Pac-12-after-dark tussle at Arizona.

Either the Huskies are ready or they aren't. We won't have to debate it anymore.

Stanford has been a perfect litmus test for Petersen.

Two years ago, the Huskies combined a strong defense with an unready offense. They held Stanford to a respectable 5.5 yards per play, returned a fumble for a touchdown, and made red zone stops to stay within shouting distance. (Granted, everybody made red zone stops on Stanford in 2014.) But their offense got swallowed up, gaining 179 yards. Washington recovered four of the game's five fumbles but still couldn't pull an upset in a 20-13 loss.

Last year, a young UW offense fared a bit better. The Huskies averaged 5.1 yards per play, and after a dismal first half (drive progression: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt), they put together a couple of scoring drives. The defense, however, couldn't do much. They held Christian McCaffrey to 109 yards on 23 carries, but Kevin Hogan was 17-of-24 passing for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Stanford 31, Washington 14.

UW quarterback Jake Browning was out with a shoulder injury last year. Hogan has graduated. Is that trade enough to flip the balance? What if we throw in a few Stanford injuries, as well?

Rutgers v Washington
Vita Vea & Azeem Victor
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

1. Count the sacks and pressures

Some of Stanford’s largest advantages through the years, against everybody in the Pac-12, have come in the trenches.

But there is some vulnerability there. The Cardinal had to replace four of last year’s top six linemen this offseason and have struggled in protecting new starting quarterback Ryan Burns. He’s getting the ball out of his hands quickly on passing downs, but play-action has been a struggle — he’s getting sacked 9 percent of the time on standard downs.

Until Stanford’s final drive at UCLA this past Saturday, Burns had a miserable time. On standard downs, when the offense is supposed to have a clear advantage (especially with McCaffrey’s run threat), Burns was 5-of-13 passing for 51 yards, an interception, and two sacks. And on paper, Washington’s pass defense is better than UCLA’s.

You’ll probably see a heavy dose of McCaffrey, but when Stanford passes, will Burns have time or open receivers? And can a strong pass rush led by Vita Vea (2.5 sacks), Joe Mathis (2), and Elijah Qualls (2) get to Burns and create some field-flipping negative plays?

You can ask a similar question when Washington has the ball. The Huskies have moved the ball well against mostly inferior opposition, but Browning took two sacks and threw an interception on passing downs last week against Arizona.

Filtering out garbage time, in three games against FBS competition, Browning has completed 11 of 16 passes for 106 yards and those two sacks on passing downs. Yards per attempt: a paltry 5.3. Stanford’s pass rush is good enough to take advantage of Browning if the Huskies fall behind schedule.

2. Count the big plays

Washington’s offense hasn’t been good on passing downs, but it hasn’t mattered because the Huskies haven’t faced many passing downs. With a balanced attack featuring Myles Gaskin’s rushing and passes to the foursome of John Ross, Chico McClatcher, Dante Pettis, and tight end Darrell Daniels, UW’s offense has dominated. The Huskies have 15 plays of 30-plus yards, and only four teams have made more.

Stanford has only allowed three such plays. This could be a strength-versus-strength matchup, but only if the Cardinal’s backup corners are up to the task. Stanford will be without starters Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks, who were injured against UCLA*.

Projected starters Terrence Alexander and Alameen Murphy have gotten plenty of playing time this year, and there won't automatically be a huge drop-off. But Washington will test the duo, and the Huskies have the weapons to take advantage of any uncertainty.

On the other side, Washington has been nearly as effective as Stanford in big-play prevention. The Huskies have allowed only five gains of 30-plus yards, and Stanford’s offense has generated only seven.

McCaffrey has been efficient, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and catching 12 of 14 passes, but he has been somewhat contained, at least by his standards. He had 303 rushing yards and 86 receiving yards against USC and UCLA but took quite a few hits in the process.

McCaffrey has been grinding out a solid season — he’s on pace for nearly 2,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards. But he might need a massive day with some explosive gains, if Washington is going to take advantage of Stanford’s depleted secondary.

* Along with Holder and Meeks, tight end Greg Taboada, receiver Francis Owusu, fullback Daniel Marx, and backup guard Brandon Fanaika were also injured in Los Angeles. Stanford pulled off a clutch win, but it came with a significant cost.

Stanford v UCLA
Receiver Christian McCaffrey is almost as effective as running back Christian McCaffrey.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

3. Third downs

Stanford’s biggest statistical advantages come on third downs. The Cardinal pass rush, combined with Browning’s sack-prone tendencies, could make third-and-6 seem like third-and-14. Stanford dominates in short-yardage situations, and UW struggles.

Despite the inferior competition, the Washington offense’s power success rate (short-yardage rushing) is a paltry 42 percent, third-worst in the country. Stanford's defense ranks 12th at 50 percent. If the Cardinal are containing big plays and forcing Washington to dink and dunk down the field, that could be to their significant advantage; third-and-2 could be more like third-and-5.

After a year of perilous depth, Stanford’s defensive front has looked like Stanford’s defensive front again in 2016. Solomon Thomas, Harrison Phillips, and company have been fantastic. That could swing the game in the Cardinal’s favor.

The Stanford offense hasn’t been as strong in shorter-yardage situations as you would assume, but the Cardinal simply have to do better than Washington’s offense in this regard, and that might not be the hardest thing to do.

This game will be decided by high-leverage plays — third downs, passing downs, etc.

It appears Washington holds an advantage on what we will call the mundane plays, but the Cardinal could even things up or turn the tables in key moments.

Washington’s opportunity at a breakthrough win, then, will unfold like a balance beam routine. The Huskies are athletic and prepared, but it will only take a couple of wobbles for things to go drastically awry.


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