Washington hosts Cal tomorrow in a game with many interesting angles. You've got the explosive Bear-Raid offense which was held to just 9 points last year against the Huskies down in Berkeley looking for revenge against a surprisingly effective unit that might be playing even better than last year's crew that boasted 3 NFL 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick and an UFA that are all making their marks in the League. You've got a freshman phenom in Jake Browning facing a player he's often compared to in Jared Goff. And you've got another glorious Washington win streak over the Bears (currently 6 games, well short of the 19-straight from 1977-2001) hanging in the balance. So who will come out on top?
One of the great things about being a few games into a new season is you have more information from which to draw meaningful conclusions. Performances that are outliers become clearer, trends become more visible, and you have enough data that you can start to perform objective analysis. One of the great newer metrics in football statistics is the suite of S&P measures devised by Bill Connelly of FootballOutsiders.com and SBN's FootballStudyHall.com (you can read up on S&P at those sites if you're not familiar with it). We are now far enough into the season that Bill has set up team profiles for every program in FBS - you can find the one for Washington here. So what I can hear some of you asking? What's this nerd numbers stuff got to do with the game? Well humble readers, Bill uses his S&P metric to predict games, and his analysis shows a damn-near dead-heat for this one - he's giving Washington a 49.9% chance of the win, basically a pick-'em.
What he sees is similar to what most see - a strong Bear-Raid offense (though maybe not elite as some Cal fans might like to think) vs. a strong Husky defense and a poor Bear defense vs. a poor Husky offense. What we as Husky fans can see that isn't part of Bill's prediction method is the trend - this Husky offense is improving as Jake Browning gets more experience and more of the playbook opens up.
Cal is going to score points - that's not in question. Last year's game was a bit of a fluke - had Shaq Thompson not made that amazing play at the goal line to create a 14-point swing early in the game, things might have turned out quite different. Goff has improved, the Bear running game is pretty damn good (Daniel Lasco or no Daniel Lasco) and the receiver pool is deep and talented. But from what I've seen from this Husky defense, they are assignment-sound and (since the 1st half of the BSU game) tackling very well. They will yield some yards to Cal, but I think they'll limit the explosive plays and keep the scoreboard from burning up. Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton will test the Bear tackles.
On the other side of the ball is where the game will be made or broken for the Huskies. Browning isn't the running threat that Jarrod Heard is, so what Texas did last week isn't entirely applicable. However, I believe Jake is a good enough passer that he will exploit attempts by Cal to limit our run game, and while the Bear defense has certainly improved, it's still not that good. I think Washington will win the turnover battle, win the special teams aspect and ride homefield advantage to an important early-season win: Washington 31, Cal 27
Both offenses come out firing this one and quickly fill up the scoreboard, trading scoring drives. The Husky offense goes toe-to-toe with Cal for much of the game, but both defenses start to tighten up in the second half and Cal's ability to run the ball allows them to convert more drives into touchdowns than Washington with their struggling run game that limits them in the red zone and Cal sneaks out by the thinnest of margins. Cal 38, Washington 37
I feel a lot better about this game than most do. I am not under any illusions about the strength of Cal's offense - they're good. But, their OL isn't dominant, and I like that match up against Washington's defense. This is definitely the stiffest test for the defense so far, but I just can't see Cal hanging more than 31 or 34 points on us at home. Cal's defense is a bit better, but still pretty bad and I think the Huskies can get enough done offensively to outscore the Bears on Saturday. Special Teams play has also been fantastic all year, giving the Huskies great field position on offense and giving the opponent long fields to drive down. Maybe I just don't rate the Bears at all, but I can't see Cal doing anything in the game except having a good day on offense. I think the Huskies will pull away late and win it 27-24.
Get ready for a shootout Saturday. It will be interesting to see how the Husky defense does against the top pro QB prospect in the Pac 12 and a projected top 10 pick next spring. I was not as high on the Huskies in this matchup until I saw Texas roll up 364 yards in passing and another 286 in rushing last week. Expect a big game from Jake Browning once again as well as a combination of Dwayne Washington and Myles Gaskin. While I could see this score the other way around, I think that the home field advantage helps the Huskies. Washington 45, Cal 38.
On paper, this is not a great matchup for our beloved Huskies. Not a bad one, mind you. But not a great one, either.
With a very young offensive line and a corps of running backs that is having a difficult time finding their spots, the Huskies are a one dimensional offense. Jake Browning has shown an ability to move the offense through the air with his accuracy and his ability to work a zone, particularly on play-action. However, the Dawgs have shown zero ability to make anything happen in the red zone. I expect UW to move the ball against Cal as the Bears are sure to play a true "bend don't break" zone with a nickel defender in place to protect that weak secondary and to prevent explosive plays. But what will UW do when they get into the red zone? It's a concerning unknown in this game.
Defensively, UW will be really challenged by Cal's Bear Raid. UW's staff has had success in game planning for this style. Cal and WSU managed just 20 points and under 700 yards combined against UW a year ago. The Huskies currently lead the PAC in scoring D, rushing D and total D. However, they've struggled in generating a pass rush which could really bite them against a maestro like Cal's Jared Goff. I love UW's secondary, but you can't expect any defender to hold coverage for more than a few seconds post-snap.
So, on paper, UW looks correctly handicapped at plus 4.5 points. However, there are three wild cards that work in Washington's favor. The first is the explosive play factor. UW has lived and died by the big play on offense the last two seasons. With guys like Dwayne Washington and Darrell Daniels really flashing, UW could really swing momentum with a few turnovers and long TDs - not unlike the Cal game a year ago. The second is discipline. UW is the PAC's least penalized team, averaging just 33 yards in penalties a game. The last is the coaching factor. This is a measuring stick game for both Sonny Dykes and Chris Petersen. With no disrespect intended, give me the guy that has won 102 games in 121 tries. With that, I'm taking UW at home. UW 37, Cal 31
Football seasons are a bit like presidential elections, in that not every game is created equally. Just as the Republican candidate has little hope of winning California or New York's electoral votes, Sacramento State had virtually no chance of winning at Washington, and Nicholls will likely be similarly pounded this weekend against Colorado. Instead, the success or failure of entire seasons come down to what are, in effect, "swing games" that can mean the difference between a contract extension and a hot seat.
For Chris Petersen and the Huskies, Saturday's contest against Cal is a swing game on par with a presidential candidate competing to win Ohio or Florida: In other words, it's hard to consider the season a success without coming away with a win. The Pac-12 North's top-two finishers have been either Stanford or Oregon since before the conference expanded to 12 teams and two divisions in 2011, and for the last two years, Washington has finished in third place after beating division opponents Cal, Oregon State and Washington State.
Saturday's game, therefore, isn't just a mere divisional matchup. It's a game that will be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as indicative of the trajectory of both programs. If Cal wins, pundits will praise Jared Goff and Sonny Dykes for elevating their team while slapping the Huskies with the dreaded "rebuilding year" label. If the Dawgs pull the upset, then Petersen will be hailed for displaying his ability to win important games that was so often on display in Boise, while Cal and Dykes will be regarded as a program unable to take the next step with a first-round prospect at quarterback. On the recruiting front, this will likely translate into the winner gaining a fresh gust of wind in its sails, while the loser will be left to argue that the program isn't stalling. In other words, the stakes for this game are enormous, perhaps more so than any other game Washington will play this year.
I expect Saturday's game will come down to two key matchups: Cal's passing game vs. Washington's pass defense, and UW's running game vs. Cal's rushing defense. The first case is a study in strength vs. strength; Cal's 353 yards per game and 10 receiving touchdowns ranks 10th and fourth, respectively, in the nation, while UW's 175 yards allowed ranks 33rd, and the Dawgs are one of just three FBS programs to not yet yield a passing touchdown. The latter case, however, is one of weakness vs. weakness: Cal's rushing defense (188 yards per game) ranks 93rd in the country, and looked like hot garbage last week after giving up 286 yards and six(!) touchdowns to beleaguered Texas. On the other hand, the Dawgs' 107 yards per game ranks 120th of 128 teams, and it remains a huge concern that the Huskies have managed to punch in just one touchdown in two contests against FBS programs.
Call me a homer, but I'm taking Washington. This feels like the sort of 50/50 game that Petersen has made a career of winning, and I can easily envision a scenario in which Cal's defense affords its opponent far more chances to score than Washington's defense gives to the Bears. In the end, that will be the difference between these two teams that are fighting for relevance in the Pac-12 North. Washington 38, Cal 31