How Stanford will stifle UW’s run game

The best game in Week 6 of the college football season will be
played in Palo Alto, Calif., when No. 15 Washington visits No. 5
Stanford.

Both teams are coming off big wins last week – with
Washington beating Arizona and Stanford taking down Washington
State – and now our focus turns to a Pac-12 game that some
believe could result in an upset. Given the relative strengths of
these two teams, the game will likely be determined on the outcome
of one specific battle: Washington’s run game against
Stanford’s front seven.

The Husky run game has been sledding through opposing defenses
so far this season, with the lead Dawg being Bishop Sankey. A
junior, Sankey leads the nation in rushing with 151.8 yards per
game – a byproduct of him also leading the country in
attempts per game with 26 – and has six total touchdowns
(five rushing, one receiving) in Washington’s first four
games.

Meanwhile, Stanford’s defense suffocated opposing offenses
last season like Dexter in a kill room, allowing only 97 yards per
game on the ground, which was fifth-best in the nation. The
Cardinal returned a slew of run stoppers this year — including
first-team All Pac-12 linebacker Trent Murphy and second-team
defensive linemen Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson — and this
Saturday will be their biggest challenge yet.

Will the Cardinal crumble under the force of Washington’s
run game and be an upset victim this weekend?

I don’t see that happening. I see Stanford stuffing Sankey
and the UW running attack and moving onto Utah next week without
much of a hitch.

How will Stanford’s defense accomplish that? Here are the
three keys to shutting down Sankey.

1. Set the defense quickly and be ready

One of the most dynamic aspects of Washington’s offensive
resurgence in 2013 is its quickened tempo. Last year UW averaged 65
snaps per game. This year the Huskies are blazing turf with 85
plays per game.

They don’t run the “hurry-up” offense the
entire game, rather only in select moments when they are attempting
to gain a competitive advantage on the defense (e.g. After picking
up a first down, UW might then shift into high gear and run the
hurry-up, catching the defense in a vulnerable position. Then, in a
subsequent series, they’ll return to a normal tempo, waiting
for their next opportunity to kick it up and strike. This ebb and
flow is the heart of the hurry-up attack.)

When the Huskies do pick up the pace, however, it’s
crucial for Stanford to be ready.

Take a look at this photo from Washington’s game against
Arizona last week to see an example of a defense not in position
when the ball is snapped:

As you can see, Washington has snapped the ball and both of
Arizona’s linebackers have their backs turned away from the
U-Dub offense. They were oblivious to the fact the play had
started, as they tried to get the defense set into the correct play
call. Sankey hit Arizona for about a 10-yard gash on this play.

When you watch the game this week, take note of the blistering
pace at which Washington’s offense can roll (every 14
seconds, at times), and check to see if the Stanford players
receive the defensive play call quickly enough and are ready to
rock when the ball is snapped.

2. Be disciplined in run gaps

Washington’s run game can be difficult to defend at times
because of its confusing blocking schemes.

When offensive linemen simply block the person in front of them,
it’s easy for defensive players to defend the run gap for
which they are responsible. It’s usually the one directly in
front of them.

But when one of the offensive linemen “pulls,” or
suddenly moves after the ball is snapped to block a different gap,
the defensive player must quickly recognize that his run gap
responsibility has changed too. The defender must also pull along
with the offensive lineman to defend his new gap.

As you can see in the photo below, the linebacker for Arizona
did not adjust when his run gap changed, which left him the same
gap as one of his teammates. No bueno.

The linebacker’s new gap, to which he should’ve
moved after the ball was snapped, was left wide open and Sankey was
able to hit Arizona for big yardage. It’s imperative for
Stanford to be disciplined in fitting its run gaps against a back
as talented as Sankey.

3. Keep contain

When you flip on the film of Washington, it doesn’t take
long to see that Sankey is really good at “hitting the
edge” of the defense.

He runs around the corner of a defense faster than a jackrabbit
running to a hot date. He sets up his outside runs well by making
it look like he’s going to run inside before bursting out
around the edge.

This is able to happen when the edge defender (the defensive
player responsible to keep all run plays contained) gets nosey and
leaves his responsibility to try to get in on the action that he
thinks is going to happen in the gut of the defense.

Defenders who are responsible for containing plays often get
burned by running backs with great vision and sneakiness, like
Sankey, who sell the inside run but then dart around the edge where
the defender should have been. On every play, whether they are
cornerbacks, linebackers or safeties, Stanford’s edge
defenders must be disciplined and keep contain.

If the Cardinal fail to do any of these three things against
Washington, then the Huskies will have a shot – perhaps even
a good one — to knock off the No. 5 team on the road.

This will be a great test for the Cardinal, but given how
disciplined David Shaw’s team typically is, I think they’ll
pass.