As much as I would like to think Washington can finally put a Pac-12 opponent to the sword, I don’t think it happens this weekend against Cal. The Husky offense is just too unpredictable in the red zone and special teams haven’t set up either the offense or defense for success.
The key on offense will be to continue to ride the running backs behind Gaskin, who I expect the coaches will rest and save for Stanford. Cal’s defense is pretty good at preventing explosive rushing plays, but like the Huskies, they aren’t adept at getting into the backfield, and only get a modest 5 TFLs per game. The strength of the defense is in the secondary, where I don’t think the Huskies will ask Jake Browning to win the game for them. Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones will make some key catches but overall won’t have huge games.
When Cal has the ball, they must contain Patrick Laird and prevent him from consistently getting yards. He’s not a boom or bust running back and will often get the short, efficient gains. The Huskies shouldn’t be overly worried about Cal’s passing game, but as we saw against Colorado, they are not infallible and can get beat. The linebackers, BBK especially, will have to be careful of letting Chase Garbers get loose on scrambles or zone reads, which would really open things up for Cal. There’s also the Brandon McIllwain factor, who could get snaps as an athletic running QB. But, Cal’s offense hasn’t shown a great ability to finish drives with points, so as long as Washington keeps doing what they do on defense, Cal shouldn’t be able to match.
Ultimately, Cal will frustrate Washington’s pass game, but the Huskies will grind out another win with suffocating 2nd half defense, and strong rushing performances from Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew. The red zone woes will probably continue but Bay Area native Peyton Henry goes 3-3 on field goals to keep the Huskies on top.
Washington- 30, Cal- 17
Given the confusion with Cal’s QB situation you can’t really look at their overall offensive numbers and consider them to be representative of the offense that UW will face. I expect that Washington will be going up against Chase Garbers and his passer rating this season is barely behind Jake Browning although with about 1.5 fewer yards per attempt. We’ve seen a slew of teams go with a ground and pound run, shorten the clock type of gameplan against the Dawgs and I expect Cal to do the same.
Cal’s defense has been very good this season by all of the advanced metrics and have been put in a tough spot repeatedly by the offense and in particular McIlwain who I don’t think starts. Their weakness seems similar to Washington in that opponents are able to grind out 5 yards at a time on the ground against them. It looks like Myles Gaskin will be able to go on Saturday despite my hope that the coaching staff gives him another week of rest before Stanford.
Given that both teams are likely to be running the ball a lot and the strength of both teams is their defense, I expect this to be a pretty low scoring game. Washington’s ability to move the ball on the road also hasn’t given me a lot of confidence. Expect this game to go somewhat similar to the UCLA and ASU contests where it’s close in the 1st half, Washington pulls away for a 2 score lead in the second half and finally Cal gets a late score to bring the final margin within 10.
Washington- 23, Cal- 14
Two things stand out when looking at Cal’s season to date. The first is that their defense is pretty solid. The second is that they have beaten nobody at all- Oregon is the only team in the S&P top 75 they have played and that was a 3-score home loss. When you put those two facts together in a classic syllogism, it’s pretty easy to conclude that the offense must to calamitous.
About that defense. Husky fans probably aren’t surprised that Justin Wilcox has put together a stingy D after the turnaround he engineered under Sarkisian. So far this year, the unit has been average against the run and very good against the pass. Teams that have had success against them are the ones who stick to the running game. Cal hasn’t given up an inordinate number of big plays, but their defensive front is susceptible to getting pushed back enough for an offense to stay ahead of the chains. In other words, the key to success will largely be to replicate what worked against Colorado.
Offensively, Cal has had one of the very worst passing attacks in all of FBS. Chase Garbers has been slightly better in that area than Brandon McIlwain, but taking McIlwain out also removes a running threat that has been one of their (relative) strengths. If we only looked at yardage, McIlwain might get the nod, but with a 2/7 TD/INT ratio, McIlwain has also struggled to maintain posession. Garbers will probably play, but against UW’s defense, it still won’t amount to much more than dink-and-dunk =passes. Barring colossal UW mistakes (dumb turnovers, more special teams blunders), Cal simply has too many holes for UW to slip up here.
Washington- 28, Cal- 17
I know that I’ve said this before, but something seems to be brewing with this Huskies team. As if a combination of frustration, resentment and anxiety are all building up like water against a creaky dike. The sense here is that the Dawgs are about to do something. The question is whether it is an explosion or an implosion.
Cal presents an interesting challenge in that they are playing at home and are coached in a manner very similar to Washington. The defense is a bend don’t break kind of scheme driven out of the defensive backfield with young stars such as Cam Bynum and anchored in the middle with the best inside linebacker tandem in the league with Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver. They are a defense built to take away the big play going against a UW offense that - guess what - doesn’t hit on a lot of big plays.
Offensively, Cal is a bit of a lost team. The QB situation has settled on Chase Garbers as the primary guy. That said, there aren’t a lot of big play threats anywhere across the unit outside of backup QB Brandon McIlwain.
I think UW is more likely to explode than to implode given this matchup. UW leads the conference in red zone trips and I think that they’ll get there six times at least on Saturday (assuming they don’t score from outside it). But instead of FGs, I expect UW to score TDs ... at least on five of the six trips.
I also don’t see Cal getting into the end zone against Washington. I do see a couple of sacks and a couple of turnovers produced in what Husky fans will view as the most complete road game that they’ve witnessed in the last two seasons.
Washington- 38, Cal- 6
All season long, we’ve been waiting for the Huskies to have a game where everything clicks into place and they go on to dominate an overmatched opponent. I suspect that we’ll see that happen Saturday against the Golden Bears.
To be sure, Cal is no longer the pushover it was just a few short years ago. Cal ranks 18th in defensive S&P+ this year; in 2017 and 2016, it ranked 79th and 106th, respectively. That development comes as no surprise, considering what Justin Wilcox did at Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin as defensive coordinator prior to accepting the head job in Berkeley.
Offensively, though, Cal has quite a few kinks to work out. Their 5.55 yards per play ranks 10th in the conference and 77th nationally, while their 13 red zone touchdowns is tied for second-fewest in the Pac-12. In addition, they’ve accumulated the league’s second-fewest explosion plays for 20 yards or more. (Meanwhile, Washington is the best in the Pac-12 at keeping opponents from big gains on those kinds of plays.)
What this says to me is that the Cal defense might initially frustrate the Washington offense, and that both teams could have an ugly start in which they trade three-and-outs for the first handful of drives. But the Huskies have the Jimmies-and-Joes advantage over the Golden Bears, and should settle in and begin to wear down their opponents by the end of the first half. If the Dawgs can get into a rhythm and score 10 or 14 unanswered points, my gut tells me that things might start to snowball out of Cal’s control pretty quickly.
Washington 34, Cal 13
Washington- 5, California- 0
Against the Spread (UW -11.5):
Washington- 3, California- 2
Washington- 30.6, California- 13.4