Stanford defense even better this season

SEATTLE -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan knows he's lucky.

Not because of anything specific in Saturday's 20-13 win at Washington -- it was the type of win the Cardinal has grown accustomed to over the past three years. Lucky, because the Stanford offense, thanks to its defense, plays by a different set of rules.

First to 20 points wins? Not even.

Through four games, the Stanford defense has allowed a grand total of two touchdowns. Forget limiting 300-yard passers; the Cardinal has allowed just one 100-yard passer and has now allowed fewer than 30 points in a nation-best 27 consecutive games. New defensive coordinator Lance Anderson's unit not only looks the part of the Pac-12's best defense, but is also playing as well as any in the country.

"It might be on us tonight [when the team returns to Palo Alto],” said Hogan, referring to how the offense can thank its counterpart.

Coming into the season, it was fair to question how good the Stanford defense could be. After losing six significant contributors and coordinator Derek Mason, it was only natural. But Shaw's decision to promote Anderson, the program's longest tenured staffer, and willingness to rotate in younger players over the past few years has paid off so far.

Not only has the Cardinal defense avoided taking the vaunted step back, but both the eye test and numbers say it has done the opposite. Playing on the road for the first time this year, Stanford limited Washington to 81 yards rushing and 98 yards passing and allowed the Huskies to enter the red zone just once.

Besides a 77-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, Washington had the ball in Stanford territory on just two other occasions. The first came following an interception at the Stanford 39-yard line, and the second came after the Huskies started their final drive at their own 48.

"Congratulations to our defense. Once again, they won the game for us,” coach David Shaw said. "As for the rest of the team, if we can stop turning the ball over, stop having penalties that take points off the board and stop missing field goals, we have a chance to be really good. How good? I don't know. But we will never reach our potential if we keep going backwards.”

Stanford's problems on offense weren't as costly as they were in the Week 2 loss to USC -- when a lack of red zone production changed the outcome -- but it's hard not to see the what-could-have-been parallels. This time, it was because of turnovers.

Two lost fumbles -- one ripped out and returned 32 yards for a touchdown by Shaq Thompson and another at the Washington 11 -- completely changed the complexion of the game.

"Without the turnovers, I don't know if this is a one-score game,” Shaw said.

Stanford's defense, for just the third time in the past 43 games, didn't force a turnover. Before Saturday, FBS teams that were minus-three in turnovers were just 5-14 this season.

Shaw's right that it probably should have been more than a one-score game, but there's also the other side of things to consider: Washington has one of the most talented defenses around. Marcus Peters, who intercepted Hogan, and Thompson, who forced both fumbles, are both potential first-round NFL draft picks. And up front, tackle Danny Shelton and pass rusher Hau'oli Kikaha are also among the nation's best at what they do.

"We certainly did enough [defensively] to win, and I am proud of those guys for that,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, who lost for the first time at his new school. "If we keep working, those guys will get there. They held a good offense to 20 points, and that should be good enough to get some things done.”

As for the offense, Petersen had no answers.

"We have to go back to the drawing board,” he said. "We have to get our quarterback some answers for sure. We need to be able to run the ball better and figure out how we're going to throw the ball down field better. There were some protection things, and our run game was nonexistent in the second half.”

The Huskies will have some time off to get those things cleaned up before a much different test Oct. 11 at Cal.

Stanford doesn't have the same luxury. The Cardinal travels next week to No. 8 Notre Dame, where it lost in 2012 -- a game that might have cost Cardinal a chance to play for the national championship.

It hasn't forgotten.