There was once a time when a Stanford-Washington football matchup had all the excitement of a rainy day at the beach.
These were two programs stuck in the wet sand, in need of a tow truck or at least some brawny, bearded man-beasts to push them out.
That was about a half-decade ago, when the Cardinal was 5-7 in Year 2 of the Jim Harbaugh era, just two years removed from a 1-11 season. The same year, the Huskies bottomed out, going 0-12 and sparking a coaching change. In waltzed Steve Sarkisian, and almost immediately, Washington started to claw itself from deep inside the muck.
Now, both teams are firmly out, No. 5 Stanford and No. 15 Washington, on solid ground, the footing sturdy. The rainy days are over for both programs.
As they prepare to square off in a big-time Saturday night matchup, Sarkisian recalls what it was like to rescue the once-mighty-and-maybe-mighty-again Huskies, just as Harbaugh and now David Shaw have done for the Cardinal.
“It’s been a really fun ride to be part of,” Sarkisian said. “We’re proud of the things we’ve accomplished from the day we got here to where we are today. … We’re at a point now where we’re the 15th-ranked team in the country, going to play the No. 5 team in the country in their building, which poses a tremendous challenge, and oddly enough, on Monday, I had a couple guys speak to the team who are the only two remaining active players on the team that were with us in Year 1.”
Those two players: starting quarterback Keith Price and starting safety Will Shamburger.
Sarkisian had the two veterans stress the importance of the road they’ve traveled, and that includes what could have been a speed bump but turned out to be smooth sailing last year in Seattle.
The Huskies (4-0, 1-0) defeated Stanford 17-13 in a pivotal matchup as Bishop Sankey — who leads the nation in rushing yards as a junior — had 144 yards and a touchdown run.
“I know we need to be at our best,” Shaw said. “They’ve been cranking up yards, their quarterback is playing extremely well, (Sankey) is doing phenomenal. We learned last year how good he was. He got us.”
Meanwhile, Stanford (4-0, 2-0) has thrived after finding its quarterback, an (almost) heir apparent to Andrew Luck.
After taking over for former starter Josh Nunes late in 2012, Kevin Hogan has gotten better and better, moving to 9-0 as a starting quarterback after handling Washington State last Saturday 55-17. Hogan had 286 passing yards and three touchdowns, including two to lengthy wideout Devon Cajuste.
“The biggest thing is the most obvious — Kevin Hogan,” said Shaw, when asked about the key to Stanford’s offensive success. “Starting with his mobility. Kevin’s mobility changes things. Not everyone has to be wide open. The gun-run stuff is still part of what we do. The threat of him running helps guys get open, but he’s made us a much more diverse offense.”
Last year’s loss to Washington did not derail a special season for Stanford, which finished 12-1 and capped off the year with a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
But even the Huskies’ quick start and the heightened Cardinal expectations, the matchup doesn’t amount to much national hype.
And while both teams are excited to be up from the bottom, only one wants the outside world to know it.
“I think for our conference’s sake, the more exposure the better. I think our conference deserves it. I’m not just talking the University of Washington, I’m talking about all of our programs involved in our conference.”
Shaw, on the other hand, doesn’t mind if Stanford toils in obscurity, even after a school-best two-year stretch of 23 wins and a Rose Bowl victory.
“I don’t worry about it,” Shaw said. “I tell our guys, ‘When you want the attention is the end of the year. That means you’ve earned it.’”