Washington comes into this weekend’s game at 3-4 and a pedestrian 2-2 in the PAC-10. The Huskies have suffered embarrassing losses to Nebraska (56-21), Arizona (44-14), and a BYU team that we now know is terrible. But Washington’s 2010 campaign has also included close wins at USC and against Oregon State in double overtime two weeks ago. The Huskies have a great home field advantage at Husky Stadium in Seattle–they’re averaging nearly 67,000 fans per game— but are just 2-2 at home so far. And their win-loss history is not a predictable product of their opponents: the Huskies should have beaten BYU and lost to Oregon State. So what’s up with UW?
Jake Locker. The performance of the Huskies’s star senior quarterback is an incredibly reliable predictor of success. When Locker throws for more than 270 yards, the Huskies win. When he doesn’t, they lose. Locker’s passer rating also flawlessly indicates whether UW wins or loses: when his rating tops 124, Washington wins. Locker’s completion percentage is only slightly less telling of how successful the entire team will be on a given Saturday. With the exception of the loss to Arizona State on October 9, the Huskies have won every game in which Locker has completed at least 60% of his passes.
Locker figures into the Huskies’s so prominently because the Washington running game has been inconsistent from game to game. Sophomore tailback Chris Polk has been good overall (91 rushing yards per game) but hasn’t put up his production evenly across the schedule. He’s had three 100+ yard rushing games, but dropped duds in losses against Arizona and Nebraska. When the Huskies haven’t been able to get Polk off to the races for big games, they’ve had to rely on Locker.
That reliance has taken an increasingly daunting toll on Locker’s body. Though he’s started every game this season, he’s been battling rib problems throughout the fall, and more recently has had to fight a nagging thigh injury. Locker’s tendency to run–he’s had 68 rushing attempts in 7 games this year–only compounds the injury problem by leaving him vulnerable to physical linebackers looking to take him out of the game with big hits.
Enter Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, who does the big hitting on linebackers.
Luck and Locker have been played up by the media as foils of each other the entire season. Some of the parallels are obvious: the somewhat similar names, the West Coast and conference proximity, the classic good guy personas, and the once irrefutable idea that these two men would be the first two quarterbacks chosen in the 2011 NFL Draft. Luck and Locker now seem further separated, as Stanford has won while Washington has lost and Luck has rocketed up NFL draft boards while Locker has had games that make NFL scouts cringe. Although we hate linking to the largely incompetent ESPN mega-corp, Todd McShay and Mel Kiper’s discussion of Luck and Locker is worth a look. Saturday in Seattle will practically be a professional conference for NFL scouts and management personnel.
But which quarterback will come away with a win? That will largely be a function of which defense plays the better game. Washington’s defense is one of the worst in the FBS, allowing an average of over 33 points per game. That should work well for Stanford, which ranks 5th in the country with almost 43 points scored per game. But Stanford’s last three games have taught us that the Cardinal defense is not very good, either. (Please don’t deny it, Stanford fans: allowing Washington State to score 21 points in one quarter is pretty dreadful.) And the Huskies can score a good–albeit not fantastic–number of points against shaky PAC-10 secondaries, as they proved by putting up 32 on USC in the Coliseum and 35 against Oregon State.
The difference this week will most likely be Andrew Luck’s consistency. Whereas Locker can look brilliant but make very poor decisions, Luck is remarkably even-keeled and rarely makes bad choices with the ball (notwithstanding his Brett Favre-esque interception last Saturday). Stanford also has a potent running game, led by sophomore Stepfan Taylor, that should be able to move the ball effectively against Washington. With a less consistent running game and persistent injuries, Locker may not be able to move the ball as well as Stanford will.
On the always mysterious Stanford injury report front, wideout Chris Owusu, running back Tyler Gaffney, and safety Delano Howell are all questionable for Saturday. That probably means that they won’t play, but don’t count on it. Jim Harbaugh notoriously plays his team’s injuries close to the chest.
Even without Owusu, look for Luck to bounce back from a sub-par game last week and exploit a weak Washington defense. Without a fully healthy Locker to counter him, the Huskies won’t be able to keep up with Stanford’s offensive scoring production. Look for a close Stanford win.
Verdict: Stanford beats Washington, 38-31
Willys DeVoll is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Daily Axe, a Stanford sports site.