Oct. 18, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - A large reason why Stanford is undefeated, ranked seventh in the country and has a Heisman Trophy front runner at quarterback is the autonomy Andrew Luck has to change plays.
"They don't run a bad play. And that's because of him. That's because of his ability to prepare mentally," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said days before 22nd-ranked Washington (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) visits Luck and his Cardinal (6-0, 4-0).
Sarkisian says it is the most freedom he's ever seen a college quarterback have. UW's coach has to go back to 2004 when he was coaching Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks to recall such play-calling authority by a QB.
"I just haven't seen him make a bunch of poor throws or throw into coverage or make a bad play, and that's the beauty of him," Sarkisian said of Luck. "For a kid in college to be doing all that stuff is pretty impressive."
So the intelligent, super-prepared Luck wins all the chess matches at the line.
Good thing the Huskies aren't playing chess.
Oh sure, defensive coordinator Nick Holt says there will be times beginning Saturday at 5 p.m. (ABC television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with the live game chat from the sidelines) that his Dawgs disguise defenses and change looks against Luck before the snap.
"There's some things we can do," Holt said.
"But if we do too much with that kind of stuff we can spin ourselves into the ground and not play as hard as we should. We need to do a nice job in our base stuff, and we've got to get some turnovers."
Washington has had a more sound, consistent and confident defense in consecutive wins over Utah and Colorado. UW has allowed season lows of 14 and 24 points, and 322 and 269 total yards in its last two games, after a September spent searching for itself and the right places to be on D.
Some of it has come with the aid of turnovers - UW got five takeaways in a 31-14 win at Utah. But the Huskies didn't create a single turnover last weekend yet still cruised past Colorado 52-24.
Colorado scored on a 70-yard drive in its first possession, then gained just 199 yards over the rest of the game.
Now, the Huskies' D gets its stiffest test of the season. Not only has Stanford rolled its last nine opponents by 25 points or more in a 14-game winning streak that is the nation's longest, Luck and the Cardinal have beaten Washington 41-0 and 34-14 in the last two seasons.
It's been a mix of the pounding run - "Power. Power. Power," is what Huskies defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu thinks of when it comes to Stanford - and Luck throwing over the top of run-stopping defenses for back-breaking plays.
Last year's 41-0 loss at Husky Stadium was "embarrassing," UW middle linebacker Cort Dennison said Tuesday, a day after he watched a replay of it.
"They just pushed us around. It was an embarrassing loss for us," the co-captain said. "We just didn't bring it. We got out-physicaled. We can't let that happen again. Our front seven, we take pride in being physical and hitting people in the mouth before they hit us in the mouth.
"But this is a different football team we have this year," Dennison said. "I like our team, where we are at right now. We continue to grow each game. That's a good sign for a good defense.
"We realize what we have in front of us. We realize we have a huge task at hand. ... If we want to be among the best teams in the Pac-12 you have to go in and play with teams like Stanford."
So what's the best way to defend Luck?
Holt, Dennison, Ta'amu, and Sarkisian agree Washington must stay at home in its assigned run gaps and in pass coverage, not get sucked into trying to help out against Stanford's many runs. Linebackers and defensive backs will have their hands full against 6-6 tight end Coby Fleener, 6-6 Zach Ertz and 6-8 Levine Toilolo. The Cardinal sometimes splits out those three tight ends against far shorter cover guys.
Luck spots them for huge plays as easily as he would adults inside a kindergarten class.
"You need to cover them," Sarkisian said of Stanford's tight ends. "I think where they make their biggest plays is, they lull you to sleep running the ball, then they play action pass and there goes Fleener on a post route and there is no one within 20 yards, or there goes the new kid, 11 (Toilolo) behind everybody by 20 yards.
"If that's your man, you are assigned to him. If that's your zone you need to be disciplined and cover him. That's where they get you. They pound on you, wear on you, running the ball. But where they really get you is in the play-action pass game and those tight ends that can run get behind you for chunks of yards at a time."
There is one thing UW's defense has entering Saturday that it didn't have even three weeks ago. The last two, comfortable wins have developed experienced depth, especially at outside linebacker and in the secondary.
Jamaal Kearse, John Timu, Garret Gilliland and Princeton Fuimaono are all getting first-team time now. Will Shamburger got his most action of the season last week to provide another safety along with Sean Parker, Nate Fellner and Justin Glenn. At cornerback, Quinton Richardson, Greg Ducre are sharing some time opposite Desmond Trufant.
"I knew we had the depth offensively, with the receivers, the tight end, the backs. But now defensively, at the safety spot, (we are playing) four safeties, at the linebacker spot I think we played six or seven linebackers at that spot (against Colorado), and at the corner position," Sarkisian said. "That depth there is critical for us as we move forward, against a physical team like Stanford, against an up-tempo team like Arizona (Oct. 29), against another up-tempo team like Oregon (Nov. 5), you've got to have depth in this conference.
"I've been saying it since Day One, and now we finally get to reap some of the benefits. We can substitute guys and play guys and trust them and count on them, and they're playing good football for us."
QUICK HITS: Dennison and women's soccer goal keeper Kari Davidson were featured speakers representing UW student-athletes at a noon luncheon, the school's annual one honoring donors who fund players' scholarships. Dennison, a fifth-year senior, detailed the Huskies' football revival and experience of getting the school's first bowl win in 10 seasons in December then told the donors, "We couldn't do any of it without you. Thank you." ... UW has used all its allotment of visiting tickets for the Stanford game, with about 1,700 sold. And word from Stanford is the game is a sellout on that end, too, something that was rare on The Farm until Luck arrived and this current Cardinal heyday began a couple years ago. ... Tuesday's two-hour practice was in Bay Area-like sun and warmth. The forecast for game time at Stanford is sunny with high temperatures near 80, getting into the 60s by evening.