This is the seventh entry in an ongoing series between Ryan Priest and Alex Hyres. Each week during the season, we'll look at the state of the Husky football program, break down the major story lines surrounding the team, and give predictions for the games. Up this week is Georgia State. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two), Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State, Stanford, Bye Week.
Alex: After a wild week throughout the college football landscape, I learned two things: the SEC is great and the Pac-12 is terrible. The SEC is just so deep with great competition throughout the conference; the Pac-12 is so weak with a bunch of pretender national championship contenders and a smattering of mediocre teams to round out the conference. Looks like we're headed for a playoff with three SEC teams and Florida State.
... or are we? College football pundits around the land have prematurely called an end to the Pac-12's chances of being represented in the playoffs. With several upsets and surprise outcomes, the chances of a two-loss Pac-12 champion seem greater. Oregon fell to Arizona last Thursday night; Stanford stumbled against Notre Dame (Kevin Hogan, you are the weakest link); UCLA lost at the hands of Utah; USC Sarked* their way to defeat against Arizona State; and California took advantage of a "Coug kick" to improbably secure the first-place standing in the Pac-12 North.
Calling the events of last week unbelievable is an understatement, especially in the Pac-12. In the aftermath of the weekend—beyond the staying in the mix for a title run in the Pac-12—the Huskies should view their schedule differently. Games against Oregon and UCLA seem less challenging, while games against Cal, Colorado and Washington State seem a bit more daunting. Even as some games seem more navigable and others seem less so, the Huskies will not have much room for error. Coming out flat against any team on the remaining schedule could spell disaster.
What do you think will be the biggest barriers to the Huskies' success during the season's remainder?
Ryan: The biggest challenge Washington now faces is this: The days of easy outs in the Pac-12 are behind them. (Virtually) every team is capable of beating any other, which means that the Dawgs' margin for error has evaporated. In the first year of a new coach's regime, that is a dangerous prospect to face.
Last year, Cal was the conference's punching bag after suffering a horrific spate of injuries to key players, especially on the defense. Fast-forward to 2014: Jared Goff has maturated under Sonny Dykes and his pass-happy system, and looks like a potential Heisman candidate a year or two down the road. In 2013, the Colorado Buffaloes' sole conference win came against Washington State after the Cougars pulled off an improbable and epic fourth-quarter collapse. This year, the Buffs have kept from wilting in competitive contests against Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State while posting wins against UMass and Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA have all shown glimpses of mortality. The Ducks are positively hapless on the offensive line; Stanford's offense is in a funk, and couldn't convert a third-and-eight if David Shaw's life depended on it; and UCLA just lost at home to a middling Utah team after looking far less dominant earlier in the season against weaker competition than many in the media (though not us here at the Pound) expected.
Washington's loss to Stanford two weeks ago, then, looms even larger in the rear-view mirror now than it did then. I called the game a missed opportunity in its immediate aftermath; and with the Cardinal, Ducks and Huskies all owning a conference loss by mid-October, that missed opportunity might very well be the single greatest factor that keeps them from playing for the conference championship in December. The Huskies stubbed their toe once already; they'll have to avoid doing so again to keep those championship hopes alive—and yes, that means driving south in a week's time and snapping a 10-game losing streak to the Ducks (perhaps you've heard about this?) in one of the Pac-12's most difficult venues.
Alex: The game against Ducks certainly looms large; however, the Huskies can't look past the Bears this weekend.
To come away with a victory in Berkeley, the Huskies must contain the Bears' passing game. I don't think it's reasonable to expect the Huskies' defense to stop the passing game, but I do think they can contain the passing attack with a mix stops in the red zone and a few turnovers sprinkled throughout the game. Key to making stops in the red zone and creating turnovers will be the play in the Husky secondary.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson played some snaps at safety during the Stanford game. Given the inexperience in the rest of the secondary and greater depth at linebacker, I expect the Huskies will continue—at least in certain situations—to play Thompson in the safety spot alongside Budda Baker. Baker and Thompson—both tremendous athletes with exceptional speed—should be able to keep the Bear receivers in front of them and possibly create some turnovers. While the Huskies need a great effort from the secondary, they can't be alone in trying to stop the Bear Raid offense.
Defensive linemen Andrew Hudson, Evan Hudson, Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikiha must pressure, hit, and sack Bear quarterback Jared Goff to help the secondary. Cal's offense has been impressive so far this season, but they haven't faced a front such as the one the Huskies have to offer. Controlling the line of scrimmage will be essential—more so than the play in the secondary—to containing Cal's offense.
A lot has been made about the Huskies lack of offensive production against Stanford; however, anyone who watched Stanford's defense dominate Notre Dame's offense until the last drive should feel a little better. The Bear defense shouldn't pose nearly the same challenge as Stanford. How do you see the Husky offense attacking the Bear defense?
Ryan: It's tempting to put the entirety of the success or failure of Washington's offense at the feet of Cyler Miles. After all, he's the one player who touches the ball on just about every offensive snap, and is more visible in both his successes and failures than just about anyone else on the field. When a lineman misses a block and the running back gets tackled for a two-yard gain instead of picking up eight or 10, it's not always easy to instantly know who was at fault. But when Kasen Williams is wide open 18 yards down the field and Cyler sails it six feet over his head, it's pretty difficult to avoid everyone in the stadium knowing exactly what went wrong.
Washington fans have had many grievances with the Jonathan Smith-run offense this year, but one of the biggest has been the lack of a passing game. If ever there's a week to kick-start that phase of the game, it's this one: Cal has surrendered 428 passing yards per game, worst among FBS teams by nearly 80 yards. Though this is partly a function of having played pass-heavy offenses in Arizona, Colorado and Washington State over the last three weeks, the Golden Bear secondary comes into this game with absolutely zero confidence in its ability to slow down opposing passing attacks. Meanwhile, the Bears have registered just eight sacks this year, and none in the last two weeks. (How in the world can you play a Mike Leach-coached team and not tally a single sack?!)
The Dawgs will need to produce enough of a running game (led by Lavon Coleman, I presume) to keep the Cal defense honest, but at the end of the day, this phase of the game is going to come down to Washington ability to throw the ball versus Cal's ability to defend it. And call me a homer, but I just don't see how a secondary as porous as Cal's can keep up with receivers like John Ross and Jaydon Mickens.
Prediction time! Does Washington continue its winning streak over the Bears, or does Sonny Dykes finally turn the tide?
Alex: Since traveling to Hawaii for the first game, the Dawgs have enjoyed the comforts and confines of Husky Stadium. The next two weeks will challenge their collective ability to generate energy without the crowd's aid.
While the Memorial Coliseum has not been a particularly difficult place for the Huskies in the past few years, this year's game should generate more buzz around the Berkeley campus. Cal sits in first place with a well-defined team identity—throw the ball all over the field on offense and play well enough on defense to stay in the game to the end.
After a break against Stanford's mediocre passing game, the Husky's young secondary will have their resolve challenged. The Bears will gain yards through the air—that's inevitable. To counter, the Husky secondary needs to stay sound in their assignments, tackle well, and create turnovers. (Two more for Shaq?)
Even if the Husky defense plays their best game, the offense will need to keep pace with the Bears. Running the ball effectively and efficiently will be the key in this game. Cyler Miles won't turn into Russell Wilson in a week—or ever—but he can be effective throwing the ball off play-action and using his legs to extend and make plays.
After a bye week to prepare, I expect the Huskies to be fresh and play their most complete game of the season. I'll call it Washington Huskies 42, California Bears 35.
Ryan: Honestly, I was very taken aback when I saw that three of the five ESPN Pac-12 Blog's writers predicted Cal to win this game. I respect what Jared Goff has been able to do this year, but frankly, I'll be surprised if this one is a game in the fourth quarter.
Cal fans are quick to point out what Goff has done for the Bears offense this year, and rightly so: He's made huge strides in his sophomore season, and it certainly appears that Cal has found its quarterback of the future. But what those same fans don't like to point out is that their FBS opponents they've played so far—Northwestern, Arizona, Colorado and Washington State—have totaled 13, 14, 13 and 13 sacks, respectively. Washington has piled up 20, with Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton both notching seven. Simply put, the Cal offensive line is about to encounter its biggest challenge of the season, and it's hard to think that they (and Goff) will come out unscathed.
On the other hand, the Washington offense will surely need to play more consistently than it has in recent weeks. In the regard, the bye week came at the perfect time for the coaching staff to readjust its attack. More to the point, this is the first bad defense the Huskies will face since Illinois, and we saw how little trouble the Dawgs had with the Illini.
Add in the fact that no coach in college football is as effective coming off of an off-week as Chris Petersen (18-2 in his career), and I just don't have a lot of worry coming into tomorrow's game. I'm calling for a big win. Washington 48, Cal 27.
*"Sarked": an inexplicable loss at the hands of a clearly inferior opponent due to mental lapses and/or a lack of energy.