By Brent Stecker
Three points was all that separated No. 15 Washington from No. 5 Stanford on Saturday night, and it felt like it.
Washington (4-1 overall, 1-1 Pac 12) hung with Kevin Hogan and Co., arguably outplaying the Cardinal (5-0, 3-0) on offense if not for five sacks. The second half was especially a punch-for-punch affair, but in the end it magnified the Huskies' slow start, a periodic problem this season that finally caught up to them after opening the year with four straight wins.
Three things we learned:
1. Offensive penalties are molasses for Washington's offense.
A week after the Huskies cut down their penalties in a convincing win over Arizona, the flags were a problem once again, as they were plagued by eight infractions in the first half that contributed to an early 10-0 hole.
With the team's up-tempo offensive style still less than half a season old, it was abundantly clear how severely the Huskies' rhythm can be thrown off by pre-snap penalties. When things are going well for the Huskies' offense, there's hardly time for the defense to catch its breath between plays. The abundance of penalties allowed Stanford's defense to do just that in the first half, and it cost Washington.
2. Special teams needs to be a focus in practice this week.
The start of the game was about as bad as it can get for Washington, as Stanford's Ty Montgomery took the opening kickoff 99 yards to the house.
That kickoff return set off a chain reaction for the rest of the game, as the Huskies were clearly trying to prevent Montgomery from burning them again. That played right into Montgomery's hand, because he turned a short kickoff late in the third quarter into a 68-yard return that put the Cardinal at the Huskies' 19, and it took them just three plays after that to find the end zone and make it 31-21.
The field-position game definitely did in the Huskies, considering they outgained Stanford 489-284 in total offense.
It only gets worse next week against Oregon's speed demons, so kickoff coverage and tackling will need to be addressed before the Ducks make their way to Montlake.
3. Keith Price kept the Huskies in the game.
With 350 yards and two touchdowns on 33 for 48 passing, Washington quarterback Price opened eyes in the nationally-televised game.
Even though he was sacked five times and picked off once, he made several plays in the second half that kept the Huskies in the game when they very well could have folded and let Stanford pull away. His 29-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Smith on the first drive of the third quarter boosted the Huskies' confidence after they entered halftime down by 10 points, and his elusiveness kept what turned out to be the Huskies' final offensive play of the night alive on a crucial fourth down that will be talked about for some time.
Three things we're still trying to figure out:
1. Was Washington's final offensive play actually an incomplete pass?
Not one angle shown on ESPN's broadcast could conclusively show that Smith did not catch Price's fourth-down pass attempt on Washington's last offensive play, yet the Pac-12 replay official apparently saw enough to reverse the original call. On the field it was ruled a completion that would have given the Huskies a first down, and they would have been knocking on the door of Travis Coons' field-goal range with over a minute left to play and just a three-point deficit.
That was the Huskies' last chance, and it was a heartbreaking way for their offense to come off the field in the first of two straight games against an opponent ranked among the top five.
2. Can the Huskies' pass rush hold up against top-tier opponents?
Stanford's offensive and defensive lines are the real deal, as evidenced by its advantage in sacks (five for 30 yards to Washington's two for seven), but part of the problem is that Washington's pass rush has yet to show consistency from week to week.
With the Pac-12 gauntlet here, the strong Huskies secondary needs help to hold scores down. Once again, next week isn't any easier with Oregon, and if the the Huskies can't get contain and pressure Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, they'll be staring at a losing record in Pac-12 play despite a 4-0 start to the season.
3. How much will a three-point loss to the No. 5 team in the country hurt UW in the polls?
When the AP poll is released, it's highly unlikely Washington will maintain its No. 15 ranking. The question begs to be asked, though – how much will they slip?
It shouldn't be too much considering the Huskies were dangerously close to tying or perhaps even beating Stanford if not for the controversial replay reversal. And that call aside, there's something to be said for Washington gaining almost 500 yards of offense and performing better on third down (6 for 14) than the Cardinal (4 for 14).
Wherever the Huskies end up, it will give a glimpse into the national perception of the Pac-12.