In the loss to Stanford, Washington's defense played by far its best game of the season. The strength of that unit, the front seven, surrendered 2.1 yards per carry on the ground, while Kevin Hogan only managed 3.1 yards per passing attempt while turning the ball over three times.
The defensive backfield, a total liability through much of the non-conference schedule, played very respectably. Breakdowns in coverage did occur, but in this case they resulted in first downs instead of touchdowns.
Unfortunately, looking forward to Saturday's game at Cal, it's tough to tell how much one can glean from that defensive performance. For one, Stanford does not run an Air Raid offense. Compared to past years they are passing far more often, but Cal presents a different type of defensive challenge, one more akin to Eastern.
It's also important not to overlook how badly Kevin Hogan played. Assigning blame/credit for poor quarterback play to the defense or the QB himself is always a tricky business, but the guy looked extremely uncomfortable throughout the game and several of his incompletions were either bad decisions or bad throws.
Finally, the game was played at home. Same goes with the last three UW games, which have all been extremely uneven performances. We have seen this team play on the road exactly once, to open the season at Hawaii, and that was also a worrisome performance. We do not know if Washington's defensive improvement will hold up down in Berkeley.
Last season as a true freshman, Jared Goff regularly flashed his talent but struggled with the type of inconsistency you'd expect from a first-year starter playing under a first-year coach.
This season he is putting up crazy numbers while maintaining a high-level of efficiency. Through only five games, Goff has completed 117 of 181 passes (64%) for 1875 yards, 22 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions. He has thrown for at least three touchdowns in every contest this season, and has avoided throwing multiple picks in any one game.
If you had told me before the season Goff would throw 22 touchdowns through six games, I would not have been shocked. It's the 3 interceptions and the freakish 10.4 yards per passing attempt average that would have had me balking.
This unit has been very solid through six games, and that's all Cal fans could have reasonably asked for. Pass protection is obviously the biggest emphasis for this group, and they have only allowed 8 sacks (Miles has been sacked 9 times while attempting just over half the passes). The overall tempo of the offense helps limit the pass rush, and Goff has been skilled both in getting the ball out quickly and maneuvering within the pocket, but this unit deserves credit for keeping the Bear Raid humming along.
Unlike last season, every member of this line has some starting experience from before this year. LT Steven Moore (R.So., 6-6, 300) entered the season with 11 career starts. LG Chris Borrayo (So., 6-3, 310) started the last five games of '13 as a true freshman. C Chris Adcock (Sr., 6-3, 295) is a true veteran presence in the middle, along with RG Alejandro Crosthwaite (Sr., 6-4, 290). RT Jordan Risbee (Jr., 6-4, 300) has a whopping 24 career starts at guard and center.
No other Cal position group will be challenged like this offensive line. Cal's offense has continued to hum along against Pac-12 opponents, but WSU, Arizona, and Colorado do not possess a defensive front of the same caliber.
The first name to come to mind is obviously BUCK Kikaha, he of the 7 sacks in five games, including at least one sack in every game. NT Danny Shelton has also racked up 7 sacks so far despite an almost complete lack of pass rush in his first few seasons. He's still primarily a run-stuffer, but the 6-2, 339-pound behemoth will have many opportunities to try to collapse the pocket in on Goff.
Given Goff's efficiency and the limitations of Washington's defensive backfield, failing to harass the passer consistently throughout all four quarters may be disastrous for the Huskies.
Skilled receivers, and lots of them. Bryce Treggs (Jr., 5-11, 185) leads the team in receptions (22), yards (312), and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (5). His speed is right around the 4.3 range, and he will challenge the defense both vertically and horizontally throughout the game.
Past Treggs, four receivers have contributed between 243-302 receiving yards, 15-19 receptions, and 2-5 touchdowns. The listed starters are Treggs, Chris Harper (Jr., 5-11, 175), Stephen Anderson (Jr., 6-3, 215), and Maurice Harris (Jr., 6-2, 195), though Trevor Davis (Jr., 6-2, 180) has been as productive as most of these starters.
As was the case against Eastern or Illinois, the effectiveness of having one elite corner like Marcus Peters is reduced by the total number of available targets in Cal's attack. Sure, Peters may be able to take away Treggs or Harper on almost any play in which he defends them, but that will still leave three or four receivers to go up against our relatively green corners and safeties.
Sidney Jones has played admirably as one of the only corners thrown into the early-season fire that didn't emerge charred to a crisp (see: Jermaine Kelly and Travell Dixon). Expect him to start across from Peters, with Naijel Hale playing the nickel role and sometime alternating spots with Jones.
My only concern with Peters is that his attitude will get him suspended for another quarter. As long as he's playing, he's as likely to pick off a pass as he is to allow a big gain. The success of the Husky defense will come down in large part to the success of safeties Kevin King (if he's still hurt I would really consider playing Shaq at safety again) and Budda Baker, and corners Jones and Hale.
If Washington's early-season problems defending simple go routes or any route that comes against a zone defense return, it's unlikely Cyler Miles and the UW offense will be able to win a shootout. That is not the kind of game Coach Petersen wants to play. The defensive backfield needs to show that the perceived growth we witnessed in the loss to Stanford will still be valid on the road against a spread offense.
The Golden Bears actually do run the football. Daniel Lasco (Jr., 6-0, 210) paces the team with 66 carries for 408 yards (6.18 ypc) and three scores, while his backup Khalfani Muhammad (So., 5-7, 170) provides a change of pace and has carried 38 times for 170 yards (4.47 ypc) and 4 touchdowns.
t's still more a matter of keeping the opposing defense honest than it is about a shift in Cal's offensive priorities, but completely ignore the run at your own peril.
At Hawaii, the UW defense struggled to stop the run and surrendered some bone-headed first downs through the air to a QB with little past success. Versus Eastern, the pass defense set program records for futility. Against Illinois, the team won a sound victory while still giving up a few bombs down the field. The team was booed off the field at halftime against Georgia State before dominating the second half.
Every game this season has been a struggle for one unit or another no matter the quality of opponent, so it would be silly to look past Cal and assume a conference victory on the road will come easily.
It's unrealistic to expect to "shut down" Goff and his arm. The entire offense, and really, the entire team are built around the passing game. He will almost certainly throw for a minimum of 250 yards, and I'd be shocked to see him toss fewer than two touchdown passes. As is the case with WSU, the team goes as the passing goes, so there is a minimum threshold for production unless the whole game turns into a dumpster fire.
Given Cal's mighty defensive struggles, even a more characteristic, 300-yard, three score game from Goff would not necessarily mean defeat for the Huskies as long as several short three-and-outs and costly turnovers are sprinkled in with the successful drives. The touchdown drives cannot be explosively short, and the failed three-and-outs need to be fast. That will allow the Husky offense to bookmark Cal drives with long, run-heavy marches down the field.
That may not have been possible against Stanford, but seriously, the Cal defense is super sketchy.
The pressure is on the pass rush to harass Goff into mistakes, and the young defensive backfield to show growth and keep the Huskies from entering an ill-fated shootout in hostile territory.