For years, no make that decades, the Stanford Indians turned Cardinal, were one of the pushover teams in the Pac-10 conference. Even under the legendary coach, Bill Walsh, they were amongst the paddy-cakes of the conference. From 1977 to 2003 the Huskies beat them like a drum winning 20 times and losing only twice. They were soft, they were a finesse team, and they were a passing team with a passing interest in the sport of football.
Now granted from 1967 to 1976 they ran off 10 straight victories over the Huskies but that was right after losing 8 straight to the Dawgs. Then Don James arrived on the scene at Washington and turned the Huskies into a national contender while Stanford became the champion of all the non-revenue sports. They barely half-filled their 80,000 seats for football with most of their fans having tea and wine tasting at their pre-game parties. The Huskies knew they could pound the Cardinal and did so regularly with defense and a punishing rushing game. The formula was simple; Keep grinding and pretty soon the smart kids from the “farm” would fold their tents.
Tyrone Willingham succeeded in taking Stanford to the Rose Bowl but even that year they lost to the Huskies. The Huskies were a football power and the Cardinal were the masters of tennis, field hockey, fencing, swimming and occasionally basketball and baseball but football simply wasn’t important. Then along came Jim Harbaugh and everything changed. Fortunately, Harbaugh was lured to the NFL, partially because Stanford refuses to pay the price for a big-time college coach, but he had succeeded in turning the “intellectuals” into a formidable football program.
Harbaugh turned the program over to his assistant David Shaw who had played for the Cardinal in the early 90’s and they haven’t missed a beat. The last few years they have been one of the best teams in America and had 4 first round draft picks this last year including Andrew Luck, the first player selected in the draft. The last seven years the Cardinal have won six and the Huskies have won one. Now they are the pounders and the Dawgs have regularly become the pounded. That has to change next Thursday night and this is easily the biggest game of the season.
They have made it possible by changing their admissions, by changing their weight and strength program, and by having their players and fans buy into the concepts of winning football games by running the football, playing great defense and being solid in the kicking game. Of course, having Andrew Luck also helped but the modern day Cardinal football teams win by playing smash-mouth football and often employ two and even three or four tight-ends while doing so. Stanford has become the tough guys on the block. They leave you black and blue and they come at you every play for the whole game. Exactly what Washington had done to them for decades.
They have always been a great academic institution and are commonly referred to as the Harvard of the West and their reputation is probably a little over-inflated but there is no doubting their academic appeal. Heck my own daughter applied there and despite only having one “B” in her whole schooling which included mostly honors classes was denied admission. I know personally from recruiting against them that they were really difficult to beat when it came to academics. They were just so pathetic in football that I only have to take a kid to a Husky game and he would understand the difference between the two schools. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work anymore because Stanford changed their stadium from a half full rotting wooden structure into a modern 50,000 seat bowl stadium with a more intimate and capacity filled environment.
Oh, they still sip wine in their parking lot, but their fans have come to expect Stanford to physically crush any of their opponents and for the past five years or so they have done just that. They have also loosened up their rigid admissions by allowing football to get a pre-approval on recruiting prospective student athletes. Years ago they wouldn’t even consider a football kid for admissions until December or even January of their senior year in high school. This was happening even though they were accepting basketball players for an early-signing in November. When Harbaugh arrived on the scene he convinced then to open up the football window thereby allowing them to recruit and get earlier commitments. It worked and when smart football kids saw their style and their success which was enhanced with their great academics it made them a tough school to beat in recruiting as well as on the field.
Harbaugh then hired Randy Hart to coach their defensive line and he too came from the tough guy school of football. Hart, who coached at Washington for over 20 years, helped instill a toughness to their defense just as he had at Washington and just as he learned the game from the legendary Woody Hayes at The Ohio State. Randy is a no-nonsense drill instructor who just happens to coach football. He has produced dozens of NFL players and although he is demanding and stern he always gains the respect and eventually the love of his players. Any kid who ever played for Randy will tell you he is what toughness is all about.
Harbaugh has now taken his tough guy approach to the professional level with the San Francisco 49’ers and they have become one of the best teams in that league. Still, he left behind a mindset and a great quarterback and Stanford barely missed a beat last year and ended the season as one of the best and toughest teams in America.
Last weekend Stanford stayed with their smash-mouth style and beat a USC team which many considered to be one of the top two or three teams in the country. They did it in the second half when they simply crushed the will of the mighty Trojans by a relentless pass rush on defense and a power running attack on offense. They forced the Trojans’ All-American quarterback, Matt Barkley, to hurry his throws and besides sacking him four times also intercepted him twice on consecutive possessions. They stuffed the Trojans’ running attack and over matched the USC secondary with their bevy of huge tight ends and simply ran the ball right down their throats.
With their new stadium and their new but old approach to the game of football the Cardinal of Stanford have suddenly become a big bully on the west coast. Last year they ran it up on the Huskies and put a beating on the Dawgs like few I have ever seen. They won the game 65-21 right after Washington had finally become a ranked team and they showed no mercy rushing 44 times for 446 yards and 5 touchdowns. They totally dominated the line of scrimmage and I am positive many of these Huskies will remember that game. A Husky victory this year will never erase that drubbing but it would signify one of the greatest turnarounds by any Husky team over the past decade. This will be a grudge match and there will be lots of sore bodies on Friday morning. This game is going to be a slugfest and Washington will have to stand toe to toe with the bullies if they want to stay in the game.
Stanford is not as good at quarterback this year, Duh! They are not as good in their offensive line either. They are questionable in the kicking game and they could be overconfident. Washington only has a chance if they can match the toughness. Hit them in the mouth and see how they like it. Get your pad level down and make it a war in the trenches otherwise they will try to run right over you. Win the line of scrimmage and by doing so win the game. It will be an upset but Washington has a chance if they can simply keep it close and play from the front. Get the lead and watch out for their play-action passes. The Cardinal show you when they are coming after you on defense and when they are going to throw on offense. Go after their quarterback and their running back like mad-dogs because the only way to beat a bully is to stand up to him. Go dawgs!
Some familiar names return with the Portland State Vikings as they step up to play the Huskies this coming weekend at Century Link Field. Head coach, Nigel Burton, who started at safety for the Dawgs in 1996, 97, and 98 recently added ex-Husky team mate, Lester Towns, to his staff as his linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator as well as special teams coordinator, Ikaika Malloe. All three were defensive players and stars for the Huskies in the mid-90’s and all three were smart players who looked like they would become coaches when they were still players.
Coach Burton, in particular, played simply because of his smarts and actually won a game for us from his safety position when he intercepted an Oregon State pass in our end-zone on the last play of the game. We picked up Nigel from Pacific University when they dropped their program in 1995 and I distinctly remember watching him on film playing against Nebraska. Here was a 5-9 (probably less) 175 pound (probably less) safety throwing his body at Nebraska backs who simply dwarfed him. I couldn’t deny his courage and it was obvious he was running the show for their defense. I convinced Coach Lambright that this little kid could help us and he went on to become our captain by his senior season.
He wasn’t big and he wasn’t fast but he was a born leader and I was always telling him he should consider going into coaching and he always told me I was crazy. He was going to be a businessman and he wasn’t going to live the life of a coach which often involves 80 hour weeks. He told me he wasn’t that stupid but I continued to encourage him and he continued to laugh at me. He actually played “strong” safety for us and that in itself was amazing because besides being small and only somewhat fast he was also not really strong. He was simply a three year starter who refused to believe he wasn’t big enough to play. Obviously, he was right because he was a three year starter and now is a head coach at the college level. We called him “Mighty Mouse” and it was a perfect nickname because he never let his size hold him back. He always played the game with his mind and refused to back down from anyone.
Ikaika Malloe actually came to Washington as a walk-on and he too proved many people wrong by eventually earning a starting spot and lettering all 4 years at the same position, strong safety. Ikaika was one of the toughest hitters in our program and he too won a game for us at the goal-line when he stopped a fourth down play with a crushing hit. He too always showed a knack for the game and you could tell he might someday end up in coaching. Ikaika would simply light you up if you had the ball and he too played the mental game.
Lester Towns was by far the best player of the three and actually played in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl. I had personally recruited and coached Lester and to this day he still calls me Pops and will call me on Father’s Day and my wife on Mother’s Day. Needless to say, he and I were very close and when I did the home visit when recruiting him I made a personal promise to his parents that I would make sure he got his degree, would go to bowl games, and get a chance to play in the NFL. I was right but it didn’t have anything to do with me. He was simply that good of player but an even better person. He and Nigel were captains together their senior seasons for the Huskies. To this day Lester remains one of my favorite players in my 30 year coaching career and has always been considered as part of my family. Nigel always kidded Les about being the teacher’s pet but the two of them called all the defenses and made all the adjustments for our team.
As a lifelong coach there are always players who you respect because of their toughness and commitment to team. These three coaches for Portland State were those kinds of players. I know their players will play as hard as they can and they will be well prepared for the Huskies. It is a massive step up for their program to be playing the Huskies but just knowing their coaches I anticipate the Vikings will fight to the finish. It is an honor to know I played a role in each of their decisions to become a coach. I’ll always be rooting for them but just not in this game and they know that. Go Dawgs.
Every game is important. Every game is big game because you only play once a week. That’s a given except some are really, really big games and you can’t kid yourself. As a coach, you know when you look at your out-of-conference schedule if there is an Oklahoma, or an Ohio State, or one of the three Florida schools, or LSU, or Notre Dame, or Texas, or Nebraska, or Michigan, or Alabama. To me and my Husky-homer point of view, all of those teams along with USC and Washington out west are the traditional powerhouses of college football.
The Husky game this week against LSU is one of those and it is huge in terms of national perspective. That’s partially because LSU is the number three team in the nation but also because this young rebuilding Husky team can prove they can play with the big-boys.
LSU is a great college football program and this game can give this young Husky team an opportunity to play in a game so big that these players will remember it the rest of their lives.
Now obviously Washington could get slaughtered in this game but that is not even considered when preparing for such a match up. The team needs to view this as an opportunity of a lifetime and to win a game of this magnitude on the road and on the national stage of television would be one of the greatest wins in the history of the program. This is a really really big game.
My first year of coaching at Washington, our 1984 team beat Michigan in the “Big House” and it set us on the way to a great season climaxing in still another “huge” victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Beating a team like LSU, in their own back yard, would rank with that Michigan victory, the “Whammy in Miami”, and the Nebraska road win of 1991 as the biggest road victories ever in the modern history of Husky football.
When a team like LSU appears on the schedule you definitely know it’s there even though beating them in no more important, in fact less so, than any conference game.
On paper this is not a good match-up simply because the Huskies are climbing back to the upper echelon while LSU is already there. The Tigers could maul the Huskies if you go on ranking alone and particularly the past few years where LSU is always a contender for the national title and the Huskies haven’t even been contenders for a league title. I view it as perfect set-up for the perfect up-set but it may take a perfect game for the Huskies to pull it off.
Four years ago when Steve Sarkisian coached his first game for the Huskies, they nearly shocked the heavily favored Tigers when they came to Seattle. Before losing that game 31-23, the Huskies ran up 478 yards to LSU’s 321 yards. LSU came into that game ranked #11 in the country and the Huskies had lost every single game the year before. They won’t catch the Tigers napping this time around but there are reasons why the Huskies can think they have a chance.
Start with the fact that the Huskies can really throw and catch well and LSU doesn’t play against the kinds of offenses that exist in the Pac-12. Now granted the Tiger defense is one of the best in the country but Washington’s quarterback, Keith Price, might be one of the best they’ve faced in years.
Now I realize that many of you who are reading this must be thinking I’m nuts, but as a coach or player you can’t let negative thoughts creep into your subconscious. You enter every game with expectations of winning and don’t even consider the alternative. Go play as hard as you can and let the chips fall. It still goes back to protecting the football and not making mistakes especially because this is an early game. Win the turnover battle and win the game. Hang in there as long as you can and give yourself a shot to win it at the end.
Sure it will be a longshot, sure the crowd will be against you, sure the humidity will be high, sure you’re playing a long way from home and sure your opponent is considered one of the top three in the country. Those things you know going in but the objective is simply to win by one and, if you do, it will represent the biggest win in the lives of all the players on the team. They will cherish this victory for the rest of their lives. It is an opportunity for greatness and would surely be the signature win of the Sarkisian era. These Huskies should plan to make it happen and believe in their mission and if it doesn’t happen, then so what. Nobody expects you to win anyway and it’s not a league or conference game either.
Washington has a great play caller on offense (their head coach). They have a really good receiver and a really good tight end. They have an offensive line that is big enough and strong enough to do some damage. They have a revamped defense featuring players who are all better right now than they were a year ago. That defense will need to be gap sound and the secondary and linebackers cannot be missing tackles. If they could get just two fumble recoveries and two interceptions they could win the game right there.
LSU is great at returning kicks and they could easily take advantage of the Huskies’ special teams unless the Huskies improve considerably over this week. Washington cannot afford to give up a score or a block in the kicking game and would do themselves well if they could force LSU to punt at least 5 times. They must be perfect on every kick and hem in all Tiger returners. They don’t have to win the kicking game they just can’t afford to lose it.
Most important is to stop the run on defense. If the Huskies can do that alone they will give their offense a chance to score 4-5 touchdowns and that’s probably what it’s going to take to win this game. Simply put, the Huskies will need to believe it can happen and take advantage of every opportunity to make it so. Play hard every snap, protect the football, create turnovers, be solid in the kicking game and stop the run and they can win this game.