Welcome to The Vault, wherein each week I take a look back at an important game from the Harbaugh-Shaw era featuring the opponent that the Cardinal are scheduled to play. This week, the Stanford Cardinal host the Washington Huskies, and that leaves us with one obvious choice.
Ever since I started this series at the beginning of the season I knew that this game would come up and I’ve been dreading talking about it. Most of the other games that I’ve profiled have been down-to-the-wire nail biters or had some other significance that warranted placement on this list, and most of them have been Stanford victories. There have been plenty of wins in the past decade, and this series was meant to celebrate how far the program has come. However, in the past ten years of the Stanford-Washington series, there’s one game that must be addressed.
Stanford wrapped up the 2015 season with a blowout win over Iowa so spectacular that it broke a number of Rose Bowl records. The Cardinal finished the year with a 12-2 record and a #3 ranking in the AP poll, their highest ever finish under David Shaw. When the 2016 season rolled around, after years of being passed up by USC and Oregon, Stanford was finally chosen as the PAC-12 media’s favorite to win the conference. It all made sense. All world running back Christian McCaffrey was returning, as well as a good number of key position players from the 2015 squad including defensive end Solomon Thomas.
Kevin Hogan wasn’t returning. Stanford’s winningest ever quarterback had been the steady hand needed to get the Cardinal to those three Rose Bowls. Now, the team was without the safety blanket they had come to rely upon. Still, expectations were high, and Stanford began the season all the way at #8 in the AP Poll. The early returns were somewhat promising. The Cardinal offense wasn’t torching anybody the way they did in 2015, but new QB Ryan Burns did what was needed for Stanford to win. The Cardinal beat Kansas State 26-13, then downed USC 27-10, both at home. Stanford’s 22-13 win over UCLA came with some anxiety and wasn’t decided until late in the game. It was hoped that everything would fall in place for the midseason push for the North Division and perhaps even the Playoff.
Washington had spent years lying in wait. The Huskies always had potential. The older fans knew that at their best they could contend for PAC-12 championships every year, but it had been a while since they sniffed a conference title. Washington’s decades of success in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s turned into stagnation in the 2000’s. The Huskies had hit rock bottom under Keith Gilbertson and former Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham, culminating in a winless 0-12 campaign in 2008.
Washington had clawed their way out of the mud under Steve Sarkisian in the early 2010’s, but they still lagged behind rival Oregon as well as Stanford in the North Division. The Huskies could only ever manage third place, and while it could be a comfortable third place, it was not where the program intended to live. After Sarkisian left Seattle following the 2013 season, the Huskies pulled the trigger on Chris Petersen, who had led one of the most successful runs that any mid-major program had ever seen at Boise State. Petersen was tasked with pushing Washington above and beyond the Ducks and the Cardinal.
Initial returns weren’t impressive. The Huskies went 8-6 and 7-6 in Petersen’s first two seasons. A complete turnaround never happens immediately in college football, but usually progress is seen in the second year, especially for a coach as talented as Petersen. Despite some skepticism, some folks, analysts and those with their ears to the ground, saw what Petersen was building.
In 2016, despite any surface level improvement, a number of pundits claimed that the Huskies would be a dark horse contender for the PAC-12 title. They were ranked a respectable 14th in the AP poll to begin the year. After a wild first week knocked many top ten teams down a peg, the Huskies rose to 8th place. They took care of business, blowing out overmatched Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State. Washington was taken to overtime by Arizona but won 35-28. It was a month into the season and the Huskies were still a rather unknown variable, and they dropped back down to 10th in the AP in the last week of September.
It would take a big game against a big name opponent to see where Washington, and Stanford for that matter, really stood.
It was a Friday night, one of those special PAC-12 After Dark matchups. #7 Stanford visiting #10 Washington with virtually nothing else on television to compete for viewers. It was to be a showcase game for the conference and a big boost to whichever team won.
Stanford received the opening kickoff and on the first play from scrimmage gained a first down on a facemask penalty. Things went downhill fast after that. Ryan Burns was sacked twice, bookending a zero yard gain by Christian McCaffrey on the ground. Washington then engineered a seven play drive that saw quarterback Jake Browning cut through the defense like butter. Both of Stanford’s starting cornerbacks, Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, were out for the game. The Huskies’ extra point was blocked, but it became apparent that Stanford was in for a long night the way Browning was passing.
Stanford managed another first down on their second drive, but were forced to punt yet again. Washington took only five plays to score a second touchdown, this time on a short Myles Gaskin run set up by a couple of long passes from Browning. The Cardinal struggled downfield as the first quarter gave way to the second. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed Stanford into Husky territory for the first time, but Keller Chryst was sacked on 4th and 2 to give the ball back to Washington, who kicked a field goal.
The Cardinal punted for a third time following the field goal. Once again, Browning carved up the secondary, and in just five plays Washington had scored yet another touchdown. Stanford couldn’t move the ball into field goal range by the time that the half ended. The score was 23-0 Washington, and for all intents and purposes the game was already over.
When the third quarter started nothing much changed. It was incredible just how dominant the Huskies looked over Stanford. The Cardinal were defenseless on both sides of the ball. Burns was harried constantly while Browning could pass with impunity. Stanford was down 30 points by the time they finally scored. Burns found JJ Arcega-Whiteside near the endzone, who muscled his way in. The two-point conversion failed, because of course it would.
With the game firmly in hand, the Huskies ground the clock down. Washington’s offense was still running so efficiently against the Cardinal that they still scored on both of their fourth quarter drives despite not trying all that hard. When the dust settled, the final score was 44-6.
The defeat was a disaster for Stanford. The Cardinal hadn’t lost a game that bad since 2007, the first year of the Harbaugh rebuild. Yes, the starting cornerbacks were injured, but with a 38 point differential it doesn’t seem like an adequate excuse. Unlike Stanford losses in the past, there were no personnel adjustment, no one drive or even one play that lost the game. It was everything. Ryan Burns was completely ineffective, as was Christian McCaffrey. The defense took an absolute bludgeoning. Basically nothing worked. Stanford just got manhandled in a way that had never happened to any of those players before.
The Cardinal faced similar treatment the next week at the hands of Washington State, who humiliated Stanford 42-16 on The Farm. Stanford managed to scrape by Notre Dame, but then the offense completely collapsed against Colorado. The Buffaloes beat Stanford 10-5 at Stanford Stadium in a dreadful showing. By late October, the Cardinal hadn’t scored more than 27 points in a game. As the schedule eased up, Stanford began to win again, this time with Keller Chryst under center. The Cardinal managed to save face and ended the year 10-3 with a #12 ranking in the AP poll.
As much as the loss was a catastrophe for Stanford it was a coup for Washington, who, with their huge 70-21 win over Oregon the next week, essentially wrapped up the North by early October. The Huskies put away Washington State, their only real challenger in the division, to end the season. Washington’s only regular season loss was to a peaking USC, who they wouldn’t be able to rematch against in the PAC-12 Championship Game due to the Trojans’ early season losses. Instead, the Huskies demolished surprising upstart Colorado 41-10. It was a crowning achievement for Petersen.
Washington would lose to Alabama pretty decisively in the College Football Playoff semifinal game, held at the Peach Bowl, but the 2016 season was still a complete success for the Huskies. If Chris Petersen’s template at Boise is followed, this Washington team isn’t going anywhere. They’re the new big dog in the North and the division will run through Seattle until a challenger can knock them off.
That brings us to 2017. The offense problems that plagued Stanford the previous season haven’t gone away. Washington still looms as a huge threat despite the Cardinal hosting this year’s game. It will be a daunting task to face the Huskies, but at least this time Stanford won’t be blindsided. Hopefully last year’s defeat gives the team the motivation to take on the new PAC-12 colossus.