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:

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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.

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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.