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Previewing the Cal Offense

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Breaking down arguably the most potent offense in the Pac-12.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

There is no better set of skill players in the Pac-12. There might not be a better set in the nation. A future 1st round pick at quarterback, a returning 1,000 rusher and several talented underclassmen at running back, and at least three or four NFL-caliber receivers, most standing over 6-3.

It would be dangerous to dismiss the potency of this offense just because UW defeated Cal last season, or even because the Huskies haven't lost to the Golden Bears since 2008. Constantly covering four wide receivers will test depth in the defensive backfield, while Goff's pocket mobility and beautiful deep ball will force DC Pete Kwiatkoski to think twice about sending extra defensive pressure.

It would also be silly to act like gaudy numbers mean that an offense is without weakness. On account of their limited defense, Cal depends on scoring touchdown after touchdown to compete with power-five opponents, as we saw last week in Austin. This urgency combined with an unheralded offensive line means that Goff and his offense have a fairly limited margin for error. They know they need to score touchdowns in droves, and the opposing defense knows that every drive they can survive is critical.

Quarterback

Jared Goff (Jr., 6-4, 215); Backup: Chase Forrest (RSFr., 6-2, 190)

The gap between Goff and every other quarterback the Huskies have faced so far this year is vast. The Broncos were breaking in a new starter, since injured, while the Aggies depended on Chuckie Keeton, who has since been shelved for a knee injury he seems to have suffered before Saturday's contest in Seattle.

After totaling just under 4,000 passing yards and 35 touchdowns (to only 7 interceptions) in 2014, Goff has already thrown for 898 yards, 9 touchdowns, and only 2 picks. Though the season is extremely young, it's worth noting that his accuracy has climbed from 62% to 73%, his yards per attempt from 7.8 to 9.7.

I'm genuinely excited about the Husky defense, including the way the defensive backs stood up to Utah State after losing Budda Baker early on. Still, asking that same group to repeat that performance against Cal, possibly without Budda, is likely unrealistic.

Goff is going to make some beautiful throws that frustrate the hell out of Husky fans. It's about limiting the damage. Make sure those throws don't result in easy trots into the end zone via sound safety play. Tackle well after the catch to avoid making it easier on this offense than it needs to be. Force a turnover or two to make up for the plays Goff is going to make.

Lucky for the Huskies, Sidney Jones looks like an all-conference type, Darren Gardenhire has looked competent across from him, and Kevin King has reacted to the extra balls thrown his way in the slot by picking off a pass in three straight games.

Of some concern is the possible absence of Budda Baker, which leaves starting safeties Brian Clay, a former walk-on, and Brandon Beaver, who burst into the consciousness of Husky fans with his 96-yard interception return on Saturday.

New pressure will be placed on depth players like corners Brandon Lewis and Jordan Miller and safeties JoJo McIntosh and Ezekial Turner as the defense is guaranteed to face a season high in four or even five receiver sets.

Offensive Line

LT Brian Farley (Sr., 6-6, 305), LG Chris Borrayo (Jr., 6-3, 310), C Dominic Granado (Jr., 6-4, 290), RG Jordan Rigsbee (Sr., 6-5, 300), RT Steven Moore (Jr., 6-7, 290).

You might glance at a stat sheet, see Cal's crazy offensive production, and assume that this offensive line made up entirely of juniors and seniors must have a ton to do with it. You'd be partially correct.

Of course the offensive line is integral to the success of every play. Yet, I'm willing to say that Cal is a case of tremendous skill players overcoming an average offensive line to achieve great success, rather than the other way around. This unit has definitely grown over the past few seasons, but no one player necessarily shines at an all-conference level.

It may surprise some to realize that Cal is a really solid running team. This is not Leach's Air Raid. Run blocking has been pretty good from this group, as evidenced by the success of the run game vs. Texas without starter Daniel Lasco.

As for pass protection, the stats, such as sack rate, are probably a bit too kind because they fail to take into account Goff's tremendous pocket awareness, quick decision-making, and quick release. He avoids a lot of sacks that a QB with slower decision making or a slower release would be forced to take.

Still, it works as long as the Cal protection isn't a complete liability, and the majority of the time it is not. I don't expect the Huskies to rack up a lot of sacks, and unfortunately flushing Goff out of the pocket can just result in heart-breaking scramble-drill deep balls. The front seven is left to balance pressure with containment despite the fact that Goff is not much of a runner.

I'll admit that I haven't watched enough of Cal with an eye on the offensive line to break down the stengths and weaknesses of individual linemen.

Running Backs

Daniel Lasco (Sr., 6-1, 205); Backups: Vic Enwere (So., 6-2, 230), Khalfani Muhammad (Jr., 5-9, 170), Tre Watson (So., 5-10, 195).

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the 45-44 barnburner in Austin was seeing that Cal's run game is not dependent on Lasco. Fresh off an 1,100 yard, 12 touchdown season that stirred up some NFL hype, on the surface it appears that Lasco was relatively quiet in non-conference play.

In reality, it's more a matter of circumstances. Lasco was hardly needed in the thumping of Grambling State, carrying he ball 5 times for 14 yards and a score. Then he put in a solid day's work against San Diego State, racking up 123 yards and another rushing score. Unfortunately, he hurt his hip in that game and did not suit up against Texas. He may start to practice this week, but his status is unclear and he should probably be considered questionable to play.

The win over Texas suddenly makes Lasco's absence seem like an issue that can be overcome via tremendous depth. If Lasco does indeed sit out on Saturday, expect Enwere, Muhammad, and Watson to split carries and attack the Husky front with a variety of running styles.

Against Texas Muhammad exploded for 164 yards on only 10 carries, while Enwere gouged out 73 yards and 2 TDs on 16 carries. Watson chipped in 37 yards on 9 carries. I fully expect that Washington's run defense is superior to that of Texas, but it's still unclear if the thunder/lightning duo of Enwere/Muhammad splitting 20 carries is a significant downgrade over a healthy Lasco carrying the load on his own.

Wide Receivers

Trevor Davis (Sr., 6-2, 185), Stephen Anderson (Sr., 6-3, 230), Bryce Treggs (Jr., 6-0, 185), Kenny Lawler (Jr., 6-3, 195; Backups:  Maurice Harris (Sr., 6-3, 195), Darius Powe (Sr., 6-3, 220).

Sure, pass-catching stats get a huge boost at Cal via the intense focus on the passing game and the presence of a very talented quarterback. But make no mistake, these receivers are legitimately talented. I'm fairly confident that any of the four starters listed would be Browning's number one target here at Washington.

Last season Goff spread the ball around with an absurd level of balance. This season he has continued to hit lots of receivers, but Kenny Lawler has made the lion's share of the big plays. He has totaled 14 catches for 182 yards through three games, but 5 of those 14 catches have been touchdowns. Behind him, Davis, Treggs, and Anderson each have between 8 and 10 catches. Harris and Powe haven't been targeted as often, but share three touchdown receptions between them.

Most of these receivers fit the classic mold of the tall, rangy wideout at around 6-3 and 190. The exception is Treggs, who brings more of a slot-type skill set to the table. The guys who won't burn you are capable of pulling in acrobatic catches, and a few can manage both.

Key Players

WR Kenny Lawler

Listing Goff here would have been a little obvious. Lawler is Goff's favorite end zone target, and that makes him a dangerous man. After catching a team-high nine touchdowns in 2014, he's already on pace to shatter that number with five in his first three games. Sidney Jones will likely spend a lot of time covering him, which should help, but if you've seen some of the catches this guy has made, you know that sometimes the coverage has been almost irrelevant.

RB Khalfani Muhammad

It seems that even if Lasco does return, he will not be ready to demand the majority of the snaps at his position. Muhammad and Enwere will still be necessary, and out of all of them, Muhammad has been the most explosive playmaker in 2015. Giving up explosive plays on the ground is a big no-no when you're already contending with this passing game, so limiting Muhammad would be wise.

Cal's Offensive Line

I know, I know, this is not one player. Instead, it's the one suspect cog in an otherwise stacked offensive machine. It just so happens to be arguably the most important cog. The skill around this line grants a certain margin for error. Goff is used to running for his life every so often, and the running backs have the physical talent to make do with occasionally uneven run blocking. That means that this line playing very well makes a Husky defeat extremely difficult, while wholesale domination by the Husky front seven may be the key to a repeat of last season's sweet victory at Memorial Stadium.

Overall

The gaudy defensive stats from the non-conference slate are about to take a big hit no matter how well Washington plays, but it will also be a fantastic challenge for a defense that clearly had its first three opponents outmatched.

With so much focus on the passing game, I think Washington's success may actually hinge on containing the Cal run game. Defenses gear up to stop Goff and his various targets so hard that when the run game gets going, it feels like Lasco and the other backs are picking up free first downs.

It makes things so much easier for Goff, as we saw against Texas. Muhammad and Enwere were gouging the defense out of single-back sets, and as soon as the Longhorns decided to put some bodies near the line of scrimmage, they were simply playing into Goff's hands.

Finding some defensive balance will be important, and with the Huskies likely stuck in nickel or dime for most of the game, another sideline-to-sideline performance from Azeem Victor against the run would be a huge help.

The hockey-style defensive line rotation will likely be an advantage, as few teams can rotate seven or eight defensive linemen without a sharp drop off. Late in the game, especially if Cal is trying to make up a deficit, fresh bodies on the line could be pivotal.

I apologize if these last points are a bit scattered, but it's really tough for me to make predictions on this one. I could see the Huskies catching Cal on the road yet again after the exhausting win in Austin, but I can just as easily see Goff and Co. exploiting issues with the husky defense that Utah State wasn't capable of exposing. We just don't know enough about Washington yet.

The difference between the two scenarios listed above is probably the difference between giving up 20-28 points and giving up 35-45 points. If Cal is kept to four touchdowns or less, I wouldn't be surprised if Jake Browning and the Husky offense can match them against what is still a suspect Bears defense.

No matter what happens, Washington's defense will be all the better going forward for having faced the challenge.