By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Starting this week, Stanford embarks upon a series of football games that likely will make or break its season. First up will be No. 15 Washington for a nationally televised (ESPN) Pac-12 Conference contest on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Huskies (1-0 in the Pac-12, 4-0 overall) are the first of four ranked opponents the fifth-ranked Cardinal (2-0, 4-0) plays over the next five weeks.
Stanford will be a little better equipped to handle Washington and its star quarterback, Keith Price. At least, that's what coach David Shaw would like to think.
"We're probably more athletic than we were defensively," Shaw said. "It's the same guys a year older. Offensively, the personnel is different and having mobility at quarterback is big. When you don't have a quarterback capable of scrambling it's tougher."
Stanford players, coming off a 55-17 road victory over Washington State last week, remember what it was like after losing to the Huskies last year.
"It was disappointing," cornerback Alex Carter said. "It felt like we had given up an opportunity to make a statement. The entire team was upset."
Don't think the Cardinal allows those thoughts to creep into its collective consciousness this week though. The idea of revenge has been shoved into the closet for all the good it will do Stanford.
Shaw deflects those kinds of thoughts. It's a different group. It's a new year. Stanford emerged from losses to both Washington (17-13) and Notre Dame (20-13 in overtime) to win the Pac-12 championship and, eventually, the Rose Bowl.
Last year, the loss to the Huskies was just one of 10 contests played that were determined by a touchdown or less, including three decided in overtime. Stanford survived then and is expecting to do the same this year.
"They did a great job against the run and we didn't make them pay for it with the pass," Shaw said. "They out-executed us and played harder."
Lessons learned rather than seeking any satisfaction from avenging a loss. Stanford is a team built as much in the study room as on the practice field.
"It's an experience I never want to have again," Stanford offensive lineman Andrus Peat said. "We didn't play to our standards and they came out with formations we weren't prepared to play."
Linebacker Trent Murphy gave Stanford its only touchdown on an interception return, putting the Cardinal ahead, 13-3, in the third quarter. Three big plays later, one by the Huskies' defense, and it was all over.
Stanford will be better prepared, if only in going against Price, whom Shaw considers one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
"He looks healthy like he did two years ago," Shaw said. "He's playing with a healthy offensive line. Their style fits him. He's in control, he plays smart and doesn't try to force things."
Price is also an effective scrambler, which only adds to headache of preparing for Washington.
"It helps the team as a whole too have a lot of returning players from last year," Carter said.
"We have great leaders up front and great players all over the place."
Stanford's secondary will be in better shape, with the possible return of Barry Browning, and Ed Reynolds no longer restrained for a half. Browning convinced the coaching staff to make the trip last week and Carter, for one, was appreciative.
"We call him 'Coach Barry,' because he knows more about offenses than anybody," Carter said. "He can explain to us what is going on and how to stop it."
Saturday's game, meanwhile will provide an intriguing quarterback match-up, as Price ranks second in the conference with a 173.6 pass efficiency rating. The only one better is Stanford's own Kevin Hogan at 174.6.
Price has attempted 25 more passes and completed 26 more passes, with one fewer interception than Hogan, who averages about 22 pass attempts a game.
Hogan has attempted the fewest number of passes (87) than any of the top 11 quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and still has thrown for 10 touchdowns.
Only Oregon State's Sean Mannion (21) and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly (11) have more.
Washington has the conference's top defense, which is particularly good against the pass. If the Huskies can stop the run they way they did last year, it may make for a low-scoring affair and then it becomes anybody's ballgame.
All-American lineman David Yankey, who spent last week with his family in Georgia, also returns to bolster the offense.
"He's a great leader," Peat said. "It's always good to have an All-American in the lineup. It's great playing next to him."