At least one more time before the 2016 season is through, Washington will be tested in much the same way that they were against Utah. A day will come when the team must execute flawlessly for 60 minutes; when the defense won't get away with drive-extending penalties; when Jake Browning will have to engineer a fourth-quarter scoring drive to give the Huskies a victory over a worthy opponent.
That day will come, but it won't be tomorrow.
To be fair, Sonny Dykes' prolific and aptly-named Bear Raid offense has presented problems for some of the Pac-12's heaviest hitters this year. Against No. 16 Utah (the Utes were ranked No. 18 at the time), the Golden Bears scored an upset victory by way of quarterback Davis Webb's 22 completions on 35 attempts for 306 yards and four touchdowns against one interception. His biggest target is junior wide receiver Chad Hansen, who has proven to be a revelation this season with his conference-leading 770 yards and 128.3 yards per game despite missing Cal's last two contests due to injury (he's expected to play tomorrow). In addition, senior running back Khalfani Muhammad has been a dependable ball carrier this year, having racked up 614 yards on 93 attempts for 6.6 yards per carry. Finally, the Bears have surrendered just 14 sacks this year, despite throwing the ball more times than any program not named Texas Tech.
But that defense...to call it a sieve is an insult to kitchen utensils. The 6.31 yards per play that Cal surrenders to opposing offenses ranks 11th in the Pac-12 and 113th nationally, and the 41.8 points per game that opponents put up against the Bears ranks 11th in the conference and 124th nationally.
Cal's best shot at winning this game will come through producing turnovers and stringing together long offensive drives that stymie the Washington defense. Only three teams in the country have been better in that regard than the Huskies, though, so that scenario is not likely to pass.
Road games against in-conference opponents always have the potential to be tricky; look no further than Washington's overtime victory against hapless 2-6 Arizona for evidence of that. But barring something unexpected, I think we'll see Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and the rest of the Husky offense overwhelm the Cal defense the same way they've done against so many other outclassed opponents this year. Washington 63, Cal 24.
Cal week always feels like a battle I cannot win. UW fans think I love the Bears unconditionally. Cal fans think I hate the Bears irrationally. It's a new twist on a love/hate relationship.
Let's start with the obvious. Cal will not be able to stop UW's offense. Play-action, powers, zone reads, RPO; it won't matter. UW's O-Line has a huge advantage over that limp Cal front and it will open up whatever Jonathan Smith wants to do.
The bigger question is whether or not Cal can make this a shootout.
The problem is that Cal has more unknowns. Their offense has morphed to more of a horizontal passing game the past few weeks and the run game lost the one player who really hurt UW a year ago. QB Davis Webb has a nice arm, but he doesn't have much timing worked out with his freshman receivers, two of whom (Stovall and Robertson) seem to have issues with ball security and the dropsies.
I'm looking for UW to win the turnover battle, to force more punts, and to have their reserves in by the fourth. UW 52, Cal 23.
Finally Washington plays a team with a decent quarterback. Davis Webb is not the most mobile guy in the world, but he can place the ball in some tight windows and won't be afraid to try to do that. No one has had success throwing deep against UW since Vernon Adams last season, and Webb has that kind of arm talent.
Cal also has a good running game and their offense collectively has averaged over 40 points a game. The Golden Bears lead the Pac-12 in total offense, so this will be a real test for the Husky defense.
Unfortunately for Cal, they will have to play defense, too. They don't do that very well, specifically against the run where they surrender over 285 yards per game. Look for the Huskies to use their typical balanced attack to win in a semi-shootout. UW 49, Cal 31.
I have a much better feeling about this game than last week's against Utah, where I was the only writer in this space to predict (incorrectly) a UW loss.
Washington has generally played Cal really well over the years. In fact, we've won six of the last seven, and generally in impressive fashion. Even last year's loss was a close 30-24 game, and was largely due to five Washington turnovers; two picks and three fumbles. Washington has shown on offense this season that this won't happen again.
The Bears play much better at home, as most teams do, but still have one of the worst defenses in the entire nation. Washington frankly should have no issues moving the ball against a Cal defense that is banged up at all three levels, and just isn’t very good to begin with. They rank 128th in the country in rush defense, giving up nearly 290 yards per game and 6 yards per rush: dead last. The way Washington was able to control the line of scrimmage at times against a very good Utah front is encouraging. I fully expect Myles Gaskin to break the 1,000-yard mark for the season with this game and he only needs 122 more yards to get there. I think will Jake get back to his 3+TD/game ways, after two games where he reminded us that he is, in fact, a human being.
When Cal has the ball, that's when things could get a bit trickier. Washington's defense is top-notch, the best Cal has faced all year, and matches strength on strength: their pass game vs. our secondary. However, I am worried about the pass rush. Cal's offensive line is excellent and has really anchored that offense. We saw without Joe Mathis the last couple of weeks how the pressure on opposing QBs has declined. Even with a fully healthy Mathis (which I doubt), Cal's OL still presents a challenge, as does Davis Webb's NFL arm throwing to one of the best WRs in the country, Chad Hansen. The rest of the offensive skill position talent is strong too, as is usually the case with the Bears. They also have a much better rushing attack than you'd expect from a passing team.
That said, something about playing Cal seems to bring out the best in this team in recent years. Cal's offense with Davis Webb scares me, and the fact that the Husky DL has looked human the past few weeks is a concern. Despite this, I think the Huskies roll. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to dictate the game on offense, and slow down Cal more than enough on defense. Memorial Stadium is also not a very intimating venue. Washington rolls, 42-21.