STANFORD (CBS/AP) — The first ranked opponent for Stanford this season hardly figured to come so soon.
After rolling to a 41-0 victory last year in Seattle, Heisman Trophy hopeful Andrew Luck and the seventh-ranked Cardinal will host the surprising No. 22 Huskies on Saturday night in what amounts to an elimination game in the Pac-12 North.
Both Stanford (6-0, 4-0) and Washington (5-1, 3-0) still have home dates with No. 9 Oregon in early November. So the winner at sold-out Stanford Stadium remains in control for a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game, and the loser will essentially be knocked out of the race.
Already, there was a different feeling on The Farm this week.
“There was a sense when the guys came into the team meeting,” Stanford coach David Shaw said, “that it was time to start playing our best football.”
Stanford is entering the toughest part of its schedule and hoping for a late push up the BCS standings—if it can stay perfect—after a disappointing debut at No. 8. Matchups at Southern California and home dates against Oregon and Notre Dame loom, and at least two—if not all three—figure to be ranked by the time the games roll around.
Looking ahead no longer seems like a sure thing.
The Huskies are a different team from the one Luck pounded a year ago in the Pacific Northwest. Washington is back in the AP Top 25 for the first time in two seasons and is off to the best start in a decade behind sophomore quarterback Keith Price, who is tied with Boise State’s Kellen Moore for second in the country with 21 touchdown passes.
The only setback for the Huskies this season was a 51-38 loss at No. 13 Nebraska, a program in contention for the Big Ten title. But erasing the shutout in Seattle to Stanford last year could be even more difficult.
“I don’t know if we didn’t do anything right or they did everything well. We got smashed,” said Price, who played in place of Jake Locker late in that drubbing. “Hopefully the result isn’t the same this week.”
Things aren’t going to be any easier this time around.
Stanford owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 14 games, also a school record. The Cardinal have won each of the past nine games by at least 25 points, becoming the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to do so since Boise State in 2002.
They have outscored opponents 275-67 so far this season, and most games were never close. Stanford hasn’t even trailed or been tied in a game besides 0-0 this season.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian wants to keep things tight and see how Stanford responds if hit with some late-game pressure. For that matter, so does everybody else.
“I don’t envision us going there and just completely laying an egg like we have last year and like we really did two years ago,” said Sarkisian, whose team also lost 34-14 at Stanford in 2009. “I don’t think we played very well two years ago, either. I thought we did some nice things early in the game and just fell apart in a sense. And that’s a tribute to Stanford. They are a great team, and when they get ahead of you, that’s their style of play and they can get you there.”
The Huskies offense could be the most dynamic one Stanford will face besides Oregon.
While Stanford’s trio of tight ends is perhaps the best in the nation, the Huskies also have an emerging star at the position in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Combine that with a solid base of receivers and Chris Polk running for 121 yards per game, and it’s easy to see how the Huskies’ high-powered offense could match points with Stanford.
Style points are another matter.
Just winning might not be enough for the Cardinal’s national championship hopes. Stanford is a 20 ½-point favorite against Washington, and every outcome this season—with the top eight ranked teams still undefeated—will be judged carefully by voters.
While Stanford’s first six opponents have a combined record of 14-24, the next six are 23-13 — potentially giving enough lift to keep the Cardinal in the hunt. Of course, a loss by either side and just getting out of the division will be difficult.
“If we have the opportunity to win out, whatever happens, happens,” Luck said. “You can’t worry about that. You have to win first.”
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)