After two consecutive games of collapse after being within one score during the fourth quarter, the Cal football team aims to bounce back as it heads to Washington this weekend for its second consecutive road game.
Easier said than done. Cal is at least a 26-point underdog to No. 6 Washington.
To say the least, their chances of not suffering a third-straight defeat after their 3-0 start are slim. But if betting odds aren’t convincing enough, perhaps a brief analysis of the two competitors will do the trick.
The Bears come in with a defense that was a well-oiled turnover-forcing machine to start the season, with three turnovers in each of its first three games ─ all out of conference. But utilizing a defense that is so dependent on turnovers to give the offense a good field position is a risk. While relying on playing passing lanes and going for strips can obviously have great potential, a good offensive line can stop this strategy in its tracks rather quickly. The Bears found this out the hard way against Oregon last week.
The Ducks only committed one turnover ─ a Justin Herbert pass picked by Jordan Kunaszyk and returned 53 yards ─ and were extremely effective running the ball (and taking care of it). Despite an early injury to star running back Royce Freeman, Oregon’s ground game got into the endzone five times and tallied a ridiculous 328 yards, exposing a Cal defense which has been called “porous” many times this season.
The Bears’ offense, similarly, appears to have been figured out by opponents the last two weeks, after being quite explosive before opening Pac-12 play. Against Oregon, however, Cal’s offense had a near-impossible time moving the ball, with an offensive line that allowed seven sacks and a collective loss of 40 yards. Cal didn’t even get out of its own half on any drive of the first half, other than the one beginning with the aforementioned Kunaszyk interception.
While a performance that poor could be attributed to having a bad day, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see the Huskies pull out a performance better than the Ducks had last week.
Washington is deeper, more experienced and probably also better coached. While Chris Petersen is one of the best coaches in the nation, Oregon has a new staff this year. But most importantly, the Huskies have had an extra week of Cal footage to study, likely preparing them even better to figure out the Bears’ tendencies and what schemes work.
Their coaching thus far this season has clearly been effective, bringing forth a defense that ranks fourth nationally, only allowing 10.8 points per game, while their deep 10th-ranked offense puts up 44 per game.
“A lot of different personnel groupings and formations out of those personnel groupings. You see similar run schemes from week to week, but the picture changes,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “They do a really good job of packaging things. If you see something the first time, there’s a reason you saw it because there’s a complement to it that you’re probably going to see later on.”
Wilcox has frequently cited poor execution this season as the main thing to improve upon after both wins and losses, but with a team as deep as Washington, even perfect execution might not be enough if fatigue becomes an issue.
Last season, the Huskies came into Berkeley and thoroughly dominated the Bears. Admittedly, the Sonny Dykes defense was much less prepared to handle the Washington offense, but quarterback Jake Browning nonetheless had a field day, going 19-28 for 376 yards and 6 touchdowns.
This year on the road, despite the improved Cal defense, the Bears appear to be facing a Washington team far out of their league. Expecting Browning to put up a the same ludicrous line may be a bit presumptuous, but at home against a questionable Cal team, anything is possible.
At least for the Huskies.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected]