Bishop Sankey and Washington pose challenge for Cal football’s defense

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Already without the majority of its starting defense, the Cal football team is now seemingly without a clear-cut starting quarterback. With Jared Goff and Zach Kline splitting practice reps this week, it is unknown who will lead the Bear Raid against the Huskies on Saturday night.

But Cal’s (1-6, 0-4 Pac-12) quarterback controversy is the least of its worries heading into its matchup with Washington (4-3, 1-3) at Husky Stadium. Despite being the losers of three straight, the Huskies’ woes can be chalked up to a frontloaded conference schedule. And before the team’s recent stumble, Washington was ranked as high as No. 15.

“They kind of went through the rough spot in their schedule, where they played Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State back to back to back,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think Washington is a top-25 team; I really do.”

A week removed from Sean Mannion’s dismantling of Cal’s secondary, the Bears’ defense will be tasked with shutting down the vaunted Husky rushing attack. Washington running back Bishop Sankey leads the country with 172 carries and is fifth in yards, racking up 921 in seven games played.

Featuring a downhill, north-south running style, Sankey will likely take on his usual load of runs against a Cal defense that surrenders nearly 180 rushing yards per game — and that Cal squad is still searching for its first Pac-12 win.

“He’s an impressive guy, runs low, finishes runs, very physical runner,” Dykes said. “Our linebackers need to play well.”

But whether starting quarterback Keith Price will be joining Sankey in the Husky backfield is still up in the air, as the senior is dealing with an ailing thumb on his throwing hand that he aggravated in a 53-24 loss to Arizona State last Saturday. Price practiced Thursday, leading Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian to speculate that his signal caller will play against Cal.

“I’d be surprised if he didn’t play (Saturday),” Sarkisian said after practice Thursday. “Just off of first glimpse, real time, I thought he looked really good.”

Meanwhile, Dykes’ quarterback decision won’t be as clear as Sarkisian’s. With the current depth chart listing the No. 1 quarterback as Goff or Kline, Dykes said he will let the practice week dictate who emerges on top.

So far this week, Goff’s practice reps have come before Kline’s, but it was Kline who outplayed Goff last Saturday against Oregon State. Kline finished the game with two touchdowns and only one turnover, while the incumbent starter failed to find the end zone, tossed an interception and lost two fumbles.

“(Goff) has taken a little shot to his confidence, but I think his psyche is good, and that’s kind of what we will see this week,” Dykes said. “Who we think is practicing with the most confidence. Really, that’s the important thing for young quarterbacks.”

Despite the attention on the quarterback controversy, Cal’s offensive success Saturday will likely come down to whether its offensive line can generate a running game that keeps the heat off of Goff or Kline.

In practice this week, the Bears experimented with a new makeshift offensive line, probably because of the unit’s inability to pass-protect or open running holes. On the season, Cal quarterbacks have been sacked an average of three times per game, while the running game is averaging a paltry 109 yards per game.

“We feel that almost all of it’s on us,” said offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee. “Everyone else gets a lot of credit for things, but it doesn’t matter how good your guys are: If you don’t have a good offensive line, you can’t play.”

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.