Hopefully you've already read the great previews here this week leading up to the game - if not, check them out:
We've all heard the grumbling about how the UW has fared away from home under Sark, and the overall numbers aren't great: 4-16. Regardless of the quality of opponents, that has to improve if Sark is going to be the guy to lead the Huskies back to conference titles and Rose Bowls. This, then, would seem to be a pretty good opportunity for the team to quiet the skeptics and show that this year's team can win a game away from home: They have the momentum of a big win over previously undefeated Oregon State, they (finally) seem to be finding an offensive identity by trusting that the run game can work and take pressure off of embattled QB Keith Price, Cal is reeling from some ugly losses and nearly certain to finish the season home for the holidays with their coach's job in serious jeopardy, and their best player (WR Keenan Allen) has been ruled out of the game. So why is Cal favored? Those pesky road demons it would seem...
If you forget about the home/road thing for a minute, the numbers would seem to suggest good things for the Huskies. In the advanced metrics, Cal doesn't fare well, ranking 92nd in offense and 63rd in defense in the Football Outsiders FEI measure (UW ranks 49th & 45th respectively). Those rankings might seem odd considering our struggles on offense, but that measure factors in schedule strength. Looking at more traditional numbers, things still look optimistic, as Cal's defense surrenders 164 ypg (4.2 ypc) on the ground and is 50th in the country in pass efficiency defense, allowing 62% completions, 10.4 ypc and 19 TD's vs. 12 INT's. Overall they rank 78th in total defense allowing 417 ypg (5.3 ypp). Their pass rush has been pretty good though, ranking 28th in the country with 2.6 per game, so the OL has another tough test this week in pass-pro.
Offensively, the Bears are OK - their running game is more by committee this year than last year when Isi Sofele got most of the carries; C.J. Anderson has more yards so far this season, and Brendan Bigelow (a one-time UW commit) - when give the chance to play - has been electric. Overall they're not bad on the ground, averaging 169 ypg on 4.6 ypc. The passing game has been less than stellar, ranking 70th in pass efficiency, and with their (by far) best WR out, one would imagine that QB Zach Maynard is going to be more nervous than usual without his favored passing option. And he's typically already rather nervous given that the Bear OL has surrendered the 3rd most sacks in the country per game.
So there are match-ups that seem to work in favor of the Huskies - our corners ought to be able to handle the Bear WR's without much safety support, allowing DC Justin Wilcox to roll out some similar looks to what he threw at Stanford, stacking the box with a big lineup to shut down their running game and daring the QB to beat him. And our defense might actually register a few sacks this week. Against Cal's defense, Sark ought to feel fairly confident continuing to feature the running game early to soften them up for play-action later. Plus, our kickoff return game - which has seemed close all season to breaking one the distance - faces off against the 4th worst kickoff coverage unit in the country (they gave up 2 TD's to Utah last week).
The X-factor would seem to be the mental state of both teams. Cal faces bowl elimination with 6 losses already, and their coach is on a very hot seat. Will they play with their backs up against the wall, or are they ready to throw in the towel? Can the Huskies get off to a quick start for once and demoralize an opponent, or will they shoot themselves in the foot again with penalties, defensive breakdowns and special teams errors and feel that monkey on their backs growing to King Kong proportions?
In the best-case scenario, I see the Dawgs finding success early on the ground setting up some big gains through the air and striking quickly on offense while the defense completely shuts down the Cal running game and Maynard can't find anyone open through the air. The Huskies jump out to an early 3-score lead, the Bear morale crumbles like the thinnest of wafers, and the Huskies win going away, 34-7.
In the worst-case scenario, the Huskies suffer more 1st quarter adversity with turnovers and defensive lapses and they allow Cal to play with confidence, all the while allowing doubt to creep into their own heads again about their problems on the road. They don't allow Cal to run away with the game, but they can't recover from their early mistakes and they lose 31-17.
So how do I see it playing out? I've had a nagging fear about this one since Sunday. While there are plenty of reasons to think Washington should win this one, the issues on the road can't be ignored, and Cal has enough talent and the potential motivation (keeping bowl hopes alive for one more week) to win and set Husky Nation back to grumbling about whether the program is making enough progress in year four.
But the injury to Allen seems like a tipping point to me. He's Maynard's security blanket on the field, the guy he looks to nearly every pass play. Without him, I think Wilcox can roll the dice and use much of the same approach he threw at Stanford to contain Cal's running game without much fear of getting burned through the air. The big-play ability of Bigelow scares me, and the Huskies will have to account for him every time he's on the field, but I think the defense has by far their best road game of the year. On offense, I think the running game should have enough success that Sark can lean on it for steady, time-consuming drives, and it should open up enough opportunities for Price to take a few play-action shots downfield to Kasen Williams and to Austin Seferian-Jenkins running up the seam. This could also be the game where Hall or Mickens takes a kickoff to the house. I don't see it being a blowout, but I do think things are lining up for the Huskies to notch their first win on the road, winning 27-17.