After just one conference game Washington already finds themselves at a critical juncture for the season - beat Cal and the Huskies remain right in the thick of the Pac-12 North race; lose and they find themselves 2 games back and on the wrong side of the first tie-breaker with the division leader. The good news is Chris Petersen has done very well in his career coming off of bye weeks (18-2); the bad news is this game could be a poor match-up with Cal's excellent passing attack vs. Washington's green and shaky secondary, and Cal's effective run defense vs. a mediocre ground game from the Huskies. What do your UWDP writers think?
Raise your hands, everyone that thought before the season this would look like a tough game that would find Washington as an underdog? Much credit must be given to Sonny Dykes - after a terrible debut season that featured an almost comical number of injuries and an epically bad defense that cost DC Andy Buh his job and resulted in only 1 win (a 37-30 nailbiter over FCS Portland State at that) - the Bears already have 4 wins and find themselves atop the Pac-12 North standings at 2-1. It hasn't been easy, and the Bears have needed some luck along the way, but while you could argue Cal could easily be 0-3 in the conference, they could also just as easily be 3-0. And while their defense - specifically their pass defense - has really struggled again this year, reinforcements are on the way.
Given the youth in the Husky secondary and the impressive passing attack the Bears feature, this game could be a bellwether for the remainder of the season - can the defensive backfield grow up fast, and can the front 4 provide enough pressure to reduce the time the back 7 has to stay in coverage? Every team remaining on the UW schedule can throw the ball around the yard, so this will be a good litmus test to see what progress the pass defense has made since the close-call vs. Eastern Washington. How they go about it will be of particular interest. So far, Pete Kwiatkowski has favored a lot of nickel looks in pass situations. With Kevin King dinged-up (though expected to play), there's a chance we could see more of Shaq Thompson at safety which would open up a spot for Cory Littleton, and the Huskies could try a Stanford approach of length & size. But QB Jared Goff has done a great job of getting rid of the ball quickly and the Bears have surrendered only 8 sacks against 193 pass attempts. Staying bigger would help keep the Bear run game in check, but at what cost to pass coverage? I suspect we'll see a lot of nickel looks with Shaq at LB, but that means Littleton and (probably) Feeney are on the bench which takes away a couple of strong edge rushers.
Perhaps an even bigger unknown and key is how the Husky offense responds to being shut down by Stanford. Obviously Cal's defense is nowhere near as imposing as the Cardinal, but they have been reasonably good vs. the run and while they've been bad against the pass, that's included games against WSU & Arizona, and they have some guys returning from injury. Washington needs to be able to grind out an effective run game, but until they can establish that the downfield passing game is a true threat, teams can drop a safety down into the box and dare Miles to beat them. If that's the case, Jonathan Smith is going to have to dial up some aggressive play calls to stretch the Cal D and find some explosive plays through the air.
Looking at the numbers from Sagarin and Football Outsiders doesn't inspire a lot of confidence - while Sagarin has the two virtually dead even (#43 vs. #46), Football Outsiders gives Cal a clear edge: in their F+ combined rankings, Cal comes in at #24 while Washington sits down at #58. And yet I'm finding myself feeding at the trough of Chris Petersen faith - I think the bye week will be the difference-maker as the Dawgs execute at a higher level than we've seen so far, and the mistakes (EWU) and lapses in focus (GSU) will be cleaned-up. I don't think it will be easy, but I see the young secondary holding up better than they did vs. Eastern, the DL getting enough pressure on Goff to force a mistake or two, and the offense looking more efficient and effective as John Ross and Kasen Williams get closer to 100%, and perhaps even a cameo by a tight end in the passing game! The run game finds a groove with Lavon Coleman leading the way, and Washington notches a tough, important win: UW 38, Cal 34
The Huskies travel to Memorial Stadium this weekend to take on a Cal team that I do not think is nearly as accomplished as their demonstrative fan base has made them out to be. Despite the vulgar and hysterical Cal response to my power rankings earlier in the week, I remain of the general opinion that I had when I wrote about Cal in the preseason. In my mind, they are a team that is thin on defensive depth, depleted in defensive talent, explosive but not necessarily consistent on offense. They are a team that can win a game against anybody, but, in the end, will do well simply to get bowl eligible. In short, I don't think they are very good yet.
The problem is, I don't think the Huskies are, either.
We all know how each team is going to approach this game. Cal is going to look to generate explosive plays with their quartet of excellent receivers and their coming of age QB while Daniel Lasco tries to take advantage of the soft secondary with gashing runs. They'll be willing to surrender a turnover or two (Cal is even on TO margin for the year) in search of the big play. They'll try to minimize the exposure of their middling offensive line by making sure the ball is out of Jared Goff's hands within 3 seconds of snap. They'll try to play defense for as long as they can before they get fatigued somewhere in the third quarter. It's the Cal formula and it has worked for four out of five games, even if it took 2OT to beat Colorado and a botched snap on a 19 yard field goal to beat WSU.
The Huskies, on the other hand, will go in another direction. Not necessarily a "slow it down" style, UW's new staff is going to try to wear you down with a run-first scheme that emphasizes using motion and blocking angles to create mismatches and numbers advantages. They want to physically grind on the defense and then hit you with a few home run shots. They also want to play the field position game while leaning on a defense that features four first round talents to create turnovers and extra possessions. It's a new take on an old formula. And, not unlike Cal, it's been ugly, but it has worked. UW leads the P12 in turnovers created, turnover margin and is second in sacks.
But, just like Cal, it's been an ugly route to a 4-1 record.
I think that this game will ultimately come down to three factors: turnover margin, red zone TDs and kick return teams. Cal is going to put up some points, but I'm not sure that they can stop UW from getting their own. Defensively, I expect UW to be ok surrendering underneath stuff and to let Goff do what he's coached to do: take what the defensive gives. I think UW wants to make this a red zone contest and to hold Cal to field goals. I also expect UW will generate a turnover margin of 2 or more, consistent with the pace that they are on. I expect kick returns will be a wash. If they can't get all of this done, UW will lose, and could lose in spectacular fashion.
I'm betting UW will get it done coming off a BYE week where key players have been reinserted into the lineup and where the Chris Petersen staff has had two weeks to prepare. I expect no more than one TD surrendered over 20 yards, a 50% RZ TD percentage, and an effective rushing attack of their own. I'm going to go with UW 44, Cal 37
It's not that I can't picture Washington beating this team. I absolutely can. I believe the Huskies possess more raw talent than the Golden Bears (though I admit that's a hard thing to prove), they are coming off of a bye, and the Cal defense is about as bad a unit as you'll find in the conference. However, to predict a UW victory would be to assume a lot of progress. Not only progress from an offense that broke right in front of our eyes two weeks ago, but from a pass defense that struggled mightily early in the year and still suffered too many breakdowns in coverage against a struggling Kevin Hogan. And all of that progress would need to come on the road.
I want to pick the Huskies, but I know that I'd be doing so out of faith. Cal 34, UW 28