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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Stanford-Washington: Let's get physical!

By Ted Miller

Sarkisian/Shaw
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, left, and Stanford's David Shaw both bring a physical brand of football into Saturday night's matchup.
Football folks often talk about a team being "physical." Or playing "physically." Yet those are general terms that don't tell us much, other than suggesting a team can run the ball and stop the run because it's solid up front.

You, of course, want specifics. What does it really mean?

"What's your deal?" That's what it means.

Harken back to the scene of beleaguered former USC coach Pete Carroll -- Carroll beleaguered! -- sharing an unhappy handshake in 2009 with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who had just aggressively run up the score on the Trojans in a 55-21 win. That was physical football writ loud and large and in your face with no apologies. The Cardinal rushed for 325 yards -- 178 yards and three touchdowns from Toby Gerhart -- and scored four fourth-quarter touchdowns. And on the third one, Harbaugh had opted to go for two.

"What's your deal?" Carroll asked Harbaugh.

His deal, Pete, was physical football, which is about a team mercilessly imposing its will at the expense of its opponent. New Stanford coach David Shaw was the Cardinal's offensive coordinator that day when USC's homecoming was ruined by its worst home loss since 1966, a beatdown that required only 144 passing yards from Andrew Luck.

Stanford is always called "physical" these days, and Shaw immediately cited the 2009 USC bludgeoning as his favorite example of that well-deserved reputation.

"It was 55 to whatever and we probably ran the same play 12 or 13 times in a row," he said. "And about 25-30 times in the game."

That play was Gerhart up the middle.

Washington also knows about Stanford playing physical football. The 25th-ranked Huskies visit No. 8 Stanford on Saturday with a 41-0 beatdown delivered in Seattle last year still fresh in their collective noggins. Stanford, which led 28-0 with 8 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter, outgained Washington 470 yards to 107, the lowest total for the Huskies under coach Steve Sarkisian.

"They just out-physicaled us," Washington linebacker Cort Dennison said. "Just beat us down. Plain and simple."

Harbaugh shared that take, gleefully gloating to his players afterward in the locker room, according to Bud Withers of the Seattle Times:
"Dominating!" Harbaugh hooted at his players. "We kicked their ass every which way! One hell of a job on both sides of the line! Dominant, dominant!"

Then Harbaugh referenced Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and the UW head coach's defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, and said, "What are you guys, 5-1, 6-1 against that group [in his four-year tenure]? That's the highest-paid coaching staff around!"

No one wants to hear that sort of talk from an opponent. But what could the Huskies say in return?

"You want to bring it to them, but they're bringing it to us," Dennison said. "It was hard."

Thing about that game, though, is the Huskies haven't been the same since. Sure, they got ripped the next week at Oregon, with some obscure quarterback named Keith Price recording his first career start for an injured Jake Locker. But they are 9-1 since the Oregon game, and clearly playing more physical football.

How did Stanford build a physical football team?

"It's really pretty simple," Shaw said. "You have really, really physical practices and the cream rises to the top. The guys who are physical and tough by nature, they stand out. And the guys that aren't, they start to wilt."

How did Washington take the same course?

"I think you have to practice it and you have to coach to it," Sarkisian said. "It has to be talked to and you have to give living examples of it. And you have to play the game that way, and I think you need to call the game that way. We've tried to dedicate ourselves to that."

And the Stanford game was a turning point, in large part because Sarkisian decided it would be, even if that didn't go over well with some of his players at the time. That included a fairly embarrassing film session showing guys getting pushed around. That included more hitting -- and yelling -- in practices.

"The coaches after that week definitely tested our will as a team," Dennison said. "But we didn't ever want to see that happen again. It was pretty embarrassing. We took it to heart."

It appears that is true. Stanford ranks third in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (181.7 yards per game). Washington ranks fourth (173.7 ypg). Stanford ranks first -- and second in the nation -- in run defense (59.5 ypg). Washington ranks third -- 17th in the nation -- (97 ypg).

Of course, being physical doesn't mean you don't throw the ball; these teams have combined for 40 touchdown passes -- it just means balance creates efficiency: Stanford is No. 1 and Washington No. 2 in the conference in passing efficiency.

Further, Washington isn't there yet. It's improved on both lines but it's not yet grading roads like the Stanford does. It starts in recruiting with an emphasis on linemen. Sarkisian surely looks enviously at the Cardinal's line, which includes guard David DeCastro, who is not only the nation's best run-blocker, but also a product of Bellevue (Wash.) High School, which is a short drive from Husky Stadium.

It just so happens that the two most talked about recruits in the state of Washington this year are a pair of offensive linemen: Joshua Garnett and Zach Banner. Both have offers from just about everyone, and Sarkisian needs to sign at least one. If he gets both, well, that would be quite a deal.

But that's the future. The present is the Huskies trying to win a "hello, world" game at Stanford, and the Cardinal trying to record a quality win that boosts its national-title contender Q-rating among those ranking teams in the national polls.

Both coaches will talk about turnovers and mistakes and execution and all of that. But the first question for the Huskies is if they can match Stanford's physical play.

Said Sarkisian: "They've done a nice job of that and they've dedicated themselves to being a physical football team. I think we have as well. We'll find out how far away we are on Saturday."