SEATTLE — Once again, at what feels like a pivotal point in the season for the Washington Huskies, comes Stanford.
The teams meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at CenturyLink Field, an event UW is billing as the “Blackout of the Century,” urging fans to wear black to match a football team expected to wear its all-black uniforms.
Somewhat fitting, since the Huskies undoubtedly wish they could erase the memory of their past three games against the Cardinal, contests Stanford won by a combined 140-35.
That list includes crushing Huskies defeats in the only two games UW has played while ranked during the tenure of fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian.
In 2009, when UW was ranked 24th the week after upsetting USC, the Huskies were beaten 34-14 in Palo Alto by an unranked Stanford team.
Last year, when UW was rated No. 22 after starting out 5-1, Washington saw its bubble burst quickly under the weight of a 65-21 loss to the Cardinal.
In the middle came a 41-0 loss to Stanford in 2010, the only time UW has been shut out at home in the past 36 years.
After each game came the conclusion that UW, while making progress, was not yet ready to compete with the big boys.
Now, here comes Stanford again at what looms as something of an early defining point in the season. Washington’s 41-3 loss at LSU earlier this month raised questions about whether Washington is truly ready to “take the next step” the team’s stated goal for this season. And the schedule from this point does not provide any breathers — next week brings a trip to No. 2-ranked Oregon, and that will be followed by a visit from USC.
But a win over Stanford could put some buzz back in a season that has seemed lacking in that area — only about 53,000 tickets had been sold for the game as of Wednesday morning.
Sarkisian, though, was turning away from the big picture this week, saying instead his team’s focus is on itself.
“To beat Stanford we have to execute and we have to play a brand of football in which we don’t have penalties and we play hard and physical,” Sarkisian said.
“... We throw and catch the ball, we tackle really well.”
And maybe Sarkisian knows he doesn’t have to remind his players much of what’s happened in the past against Stanford.
“You never want to get embarrassed like that,” UW sophomore receiver Kasen Williams said of last year’s game in Palo Alto. “You still have that bad taste from years past.”
Quarterback Keith Price said the feeling in the locker room last year “was awful. I didn’t play my best game. I’m sure a lot of guys felt that same way. We just have to be ready this time.”
And while some of the faces have changed for the Cardinal, the challenge Stanford poses for UW figures to be the same.
The Cardinal has simply battered UW the past three years, rushing for 1,045 yards and 12 touchdowns compared to 290 yards and two rushing touchdowns for the Huskies.
And the numbers early this season don’t show much to indicate that trend will change. Stanford comes into the game leading the nation in rushing defense at 41.7 per game, while rushing for 149.7, while UW is ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (113.7) and 11th in rushing defense (174.7).
“They have a good front seven. That’s what stands out to me the most,” Price said this week.
Stanford junior quarterback Josh Nunes will be making his first road start in his first season as the team’s starter, taking the place of Andrew Luck.
Cardinal coach David Shaw said he isn’t worried about Nunes getting flustered on the road.
“It’s about executing,” Shaw said. “We’ve talked a lot about handling the noise and I think he is prepared for that. We don’t want him to do anything other than what he has shown in practice, which is to orchestrate the offense and find the open receiver.”
Offensively, UW needs its rebuilt offensive line — featuring four first-year starters — to create enough time for Price to throw.
Sarkisian said his team shouldn’t focus on avenging previous hurts inflicted by Stanford.
“This is a different (Stanford) team,” he said. “We are a different team We shouldn’t have to use those sorts of things to motivate our guys. We should be pretty well motivated internally.”