Washington avoids upset from Cardinal

Despite a valiant effort from the underdog Cardinal (2-6, 1-5 Pac-12), the undefeated Washington Huskies (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) staved off Stanford in a 42-33 win. The Huskies remain in prime contention for the college football playoffs.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Huskies. On the other side, sophomore quarterback Ashton Daniels had 367 passing yards and 81 rushing yards to lead Stanford.

Despite the loss, Stanford displayed their improvement as a team throughout the season on Saturday, giving No. 5 Washington a scare until the end. With this game in the books, Stanford has now seemed to figure itself out, and now has a clear offensive identity. But that doesn’t mean the Washington game didn’t expose certain areas of improvement for the Cardinal. 

Stanford discovers an offensive identity

Through September, it appeared that the Cardinal were still searching for an identity on offense. The team was still rotating between Daniels and sophomore quarterback Justin Lamson on a consistent basis. Nobody had emerged as a No. 1 option on the outside. The month of October has resolved these questions, with Daniels solidifying himself as the starter and as sophomore receiver Elic Ayomanor and freshman receiver Tiger Bachmeier showcase their skills on the perimeter. 

Washington often ran two-high safety shells during the first half to prevent big passing plays, forcing Stanford to march down the field methodically. The Cardinal were just effective enough at running the ball to force Washington to creep the strong safety in the box. At other times, Washington’s safeties had enough depth, but were not in position to provide coverage support. From there, Daniels began taking advantage of one-on-one matchups to the outside, allowing Bachmeier and Ayomanor to use their size against the Husky cornerbacks. 

Going forward, it seems the Stanford offense will look for these one-on-one matchups more often or try to manipulate coverages to create those opportunities.

Passing defense needs improvement

It is a hard task to ask any defensive unit to cover Washington’s receiving core. Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan will all likely be selected within the top three rounds of the NFL draft whenever they declare. Penix Jr. will likely be a first round pick in the upcoming 2024 draft.  While Stanford’s defense held Penix Jr. to a pedestrian 55% completion percentage, there were several coverage busts that allowed the Huskies to easy points on the board. 

During the 92-yard touchdown pass from Washington that made it a 21-7 game, sophomore cornerback Colin Wright lost his feet to allow Polk to streak wide open into the end zone. If Wright stays on his feet, it’s likely just a pass interference and the Cardinal would still have an opportunity to get the Huskies off the field. At other times, the coverage seemed to break, like when Washington tight end Devin Culp walked into the end zone untouched in the 4th quarter. Some of the big plays were inevitable: with Stanford’s cover three match zone, cover three can easily turn into cover one. This means there can’t be safety help provided for all receivers. 

Throughout most of the game, the pass defense played relatively well, forcing Penix Jr. to throw into tighter windows than normal. But if the Cardinal were able to stop shooting themselves in the foot on some of those big pass plays, the game could have swayed in the Cardinal’s favor. 

Ashton Daniels’s improvement

Daniels came a long way from his early season struggles. In two of the last three games, the six-foot-two quarterback from Buford, Ga. has tallied over 365 yards. Moreover, he has shown excellent pocket awareness, understanding where the defensive pressure is coming from and taking off just as the pocket is about to collapse. This is a 180 degree turnaround from his play early in the year, when he was more hesitant to scramble, likely due to the injury he suffered against USC. 

There can also be no accusation this time around that Daniels was bailed out by Ayomanor, as Bachmeier, sophomore tight end Sam Roush and five other receivers had receptions as well. Daniels engineered two more touchdown drives without Ayomanor in the game, who exited in the second half with a shoulder injury. 

Daniels’s improvement is certainly a testament to head coach Troy Taylor’s development and flexibility in regards to scheme. Taylor wants to run what works with his current personnel and the offensive improvement is tangible evidence of that.

Stanford will take on Washington State (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) next on Saturday, Nov. 4 at Pullman, Wash. This is a chance for the Cardinal to take another Pac-12 win home to Palo Alto, as the Cougars dropped four straight games after starting the season 4-0. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. PT.