There is growing sentiment that this season's Stanford defense is better than last year's, and might be one of the best in many, many years. Four games into the 2014 season, the unit is making a strong case.
The 3-1 Cardinal has surrendered only two touchdowns and has allowed opponents inside the red zone three times. In Saturday's hard-fought 20-13 victory at Washington, 16th-ranked Stanford never let the Huskies reach its 20-yard line.
The numbers don't lie. The Cardinal now leads the FBS in scoring defense (6.5), total defense (198.0) and passing yards allowed (74.0). It has surrendered only 26 points and held the Huskies to 2.6 yards per play.
Stanford is also tied for 17th in tackles for loss (4.0/game) and tied for 30th in sacks (2.75/game).
With the Washington win, the Cardinal has limited opposing foes to 20 points or fewer in 12 consecutive games, and 30 or less in 27 straight games, the longest streak in the nation.
"We have a lot of old guys around us that know their jobs, so as young guys in our defense, we just want to want make sure we know or jobs," said sophomore linebacker Peter Kalambayi, who recorded three sacks against the Huskies.
Stanford held Washington to only 197 total yards, 98 passing.
"We just made sure we held out assignments down and read our keys and stayed on our guys," Kalambayi added. "That made it hard for them to find people to throw to."
While Stanford has forced at least one turnover in 27 of the last 30 games, it has been unable to do so twice this season -- against USC and Washington.
* * *
Offensively, the Cardinal is continuing to improve in the red zone. In five trips inside the 20 Saturday, Stanford scored two touchdowns, settled for two short field goals and lost a fumble. With a brutal stretch of games ahead starting at Notre Dame this Saturday (12:30 p.m.), the Cardinal must become more efficient, eliminate mistakes and find ways to reach the end zone.
"Right now, we're a semi-efficient, sloppy offense," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "That's one thing we haven't been known for, and we better not be known for it the rest of the season."
Added senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, "It's frustrating because it's not what we want to be about."
* * *
Shaw didn't dispute a second quarter fumble by senior running back Remound Wright, whose forward progress appeared to be stopped by a swarm of Husky defenders, then had the ball ripped out of his hands by linebacker Shaq Thompson, who carted it 32 yards for a touchdown.
"It was a fumble," Shaw said. "There was no whistle. The official was running up to spot the ball, but he was letting him run because forward progress hadn't been stopped. His legs were churning, which is what we want our guys to do on third and short. The bottom line is the ball got ripped out and we can't let that happen."
* * *
The biggest play of the game occurred midway through the fourth quarter with the game tied at 13-13 when Washington called a fake punt on 4th-and-9 from its own 47. The Cardinal special teams unit stopped it cold, then the offense drove down the field to score the winning touchdown on Hogan's 5-yard run.
"We gave up a fake punt last year, and whenever you give up a fake punt on film, you're going to see it throughout the entire year because everybody goes back and watches that and thinks you're susceptible," said Shaw. "We talk about it ad nausea through the week, and our guys executed."
* * *
Washington punter Korey Durkee had a big day, averaging 51.7 yards on seven punts. Using a rugby style for better placement and roll, he boomed punts of 65, 59, 57 and 52, and kept the ball away from dangerous Cardinal return man Ty Montgomery, who fielded only one kick for a 2-yard return.
"He was the best punter I've ever seen," said Montgomery. "He was putting the ball all over the field. It was incredible and frustrating as a returner."
* * *
Extra Points . . . Stanford has fumbled 11 times on the season while losing seven . . . Former Cardinal standouts Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks served as honorary captains and watched from the sideline . . . Stanford produced four sacks . . . Though four games, Cardinal tight ends has combined for 20 catches. Last year, the group caught 10 all season . . . Stanford has scored a rushing touchdown in 27 consecutive games . . . Senior outside linebacker James Vaughters made a career-high nine tackles, including two for loss . . . Saturday's opponent is eighth-ranked Notre Dame, which beat Syracuse on Saturday night, 31-15.