Huskies prove every week matters by holding off unbeaten Cardinal
Washington rallied late to upend No. 8 Stanford for its first Pac-12 victory at home
The Huskies' D looks legit, while the Cardinal have issues to sort out under center
Just two weeks after falling to LSU, the Huskies showed each game scenario differs
As the fourth quarter wore on Thursday night and Washington's upset of No. 8 Stanford became increasingly likely, the good people of Twitter made their high school teachers proud and broke out the transitive property.
LSU beat Washington 41-3. Washington is beating Stanford. How good is LSU?
USC couldn't beat Stanford. Stanford can't beat Washington. How bad must USC be?
Here's the thing about college football: The teams change from week to week. They're better some games than others. They play differently at home than on the road. Not to rain on the parade, but the transitive property wasn't intended for football.
Washington knocked off No. 8 Stanford, 17-13, Thursday, sending black-clad Huskies fans storming onto the field -- the second straight field-storming involving the Cardinal. Twelve days earlier, it was Stanford fans spilling onto the field of their own stadium after watching their team knock off No. 2 USC. Such a seemingly drastic turn logically leads to all sorts of conclusion jumping, when, it fact, we know little more about either team than we did before the game.
The Cardinal really miss Andrew Luck. That hasn't changed. Luck's replacement, Josh Nunes, got a lot of mileage out of two big plays on a fourth-quarter go-ahead drive in Stanford's 21-14 win over the Trojans, but that sequence masked a fairly pedestrian performance for most of that night (12-of-26 for 157 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions through three quarters). On Thursday, making his first career road start, Nunes never achieved that breakthrough moment. While admittedly hurt by several dropped passes from receiver Ty Montgomery, the quarterback finished just 18-of-37 for 170 yards, and the Cardinal's victory hopes ended when, on an inexplicable fourth-and-four play call from the Washington 34-yard line with 1:50 remaining, Nunes' fade pass down the sideline sailed well past his intended receiver and into the hands of Huskies cornerback Desmond Trufant.
That Stanford was even in position to reclaim the lead, given not only Nunes' ineffective night, but also a pedestrian performance from running back Stepfan Taylor (21 carries, 75 yards), was a testament to its fantastic front seven. The same unit that so thoroughly flummoxed Trojans star Matt Barkley spent virtually the entire night terrorizing Huskies quarterback Keith Price (19-of-37, 177 yards, one touchdown, one interception). Linebacker Trent Murphy's 40-yard interception return of a Price screen pass accounted for the Cardinal's lone touchdown.
But given its offensive ineptitude, Stanford had almost no margin for error defensively -- and it did make two costly ones. On the last play of the third quarter, Washington running back Bishop Sankey found a crease and dashed 61 yards for a touchdown to cut into what at the time seemed a daunting 13-3 Cardinal lead. Then, with 4:53 left, cornerback Terrence Brown whiffed trying to tackle Washington's Kasen Williams, who promptly broke a screen pass 35 yards for the go-ahead score.
Nunes did complete four passes on Stanford's final drive, but it was asking too much for a second week of late-game heroics. Washington ran out the clock (in part when Cardinal defensive end Ben Gardner jumped offsides on third-and-two) and celebrated its biggest victory since the 2010 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska.
Fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian has endured a bumpy road in rebuilding the Huskies. Last year's 7-6 campaign was a disappointment, capped off by the embarrassing 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor that cost defensive coordinator Nick Holt his job. Thursday night was a huge coup for replacement Justin Wilcox, formerly of Tennessee and Boise State, whose defense looked exponentially tougher than it did not only that night in San Antonio, but in last year's 65-21 loss in Palo Alto, when the Cardinal ran for a staggering 446 yards. On Thursday, Stanford managed a mere 65 yards. Washington held the Cardinal without an offensive touchdown, the first time that's happened since 2007.
Washington defense's performance could theoretically be a confidence-builder, but that confidence might not last long. In a brutal bout of scheduling, the Huskies turn around and visit No. 2 Oregon next week before then facing USC. The key is that Washington got a win and will now make it out of these arduous first six weeks no worse than .500. The Huskes still have serious issues on offense with a depleted line that has not been able to protect previously prolific passer Price.
And Stanford obviously has one glaring issue to address, too. Nunes' ascension to the starting job in August was considered a surprise. Redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham has the stronger arm and loftier pedigree, but Nunes beat him out. The question is, how much longer can he hold on the job? Stanford has an All-Pac-12 caliber tailback and arguably the finest front seven outside of the SEC. But it can't compete with Oregon in the Pac-12 North without better quarterback play.
Finally, how do LSU and USC fit into all of this? They don't. The Tigers were thoroughly dominant Sept. 8 against Washington and thoroughly unimpressive in last week's 12-10 win against Auburn. We'll get a much better gauge of the Tigers when they visit Florida next weekend than we did from a game between two Pac-12 teams. As for the Trojans, they presumably watched Thursday night's game thinking, "How did we lose to those guys?"
Simple: Stanford outplayed USC that night, just as Washington outplayed the Cardinal 12 nights later. Any attempts to draw further conclusions will likely prove futile.