Cal football hosts No. 15 Washington in crucial Pac-12 matchup

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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Hordes of children throughout the United States grow up being told that honesty is the best policy. Parents, in an attempt to instill positive values, expound endlessly upon the need to portray life as it is, not as their children hope it will be. Sometimes, though, it can be hard for parents to follow their own advice.

It would be easy to say that the Bears have a shot at beating the No. 15 Huskies at California Memorial Stadium this Saturday afternoon, but kids, here’s the honest truth: It’s going to be downright difficult for Cal (4-3) to triumph over Washington, arguably the top team in the Pac-12 North (6-2).

“They rely on offenses to mess up, so just trying to sustain those long drives and get them on their heels is what we’re going to try to do,” quarterback Chase Garbers said.

The Huskies are riding high on their last win, a 27-13 triumph over Colorado, coming into Berkeley. That win is pretty emblematic of Washington’s season to date: a somewhat slow offensive first quarter followed by an efficient second quarter that breeds enough offense to propel the Huskies to a solid win. Washington, for all of its offensive prowess, is not quick to assert its dominance in games, scoring a touchdown just once so far this season on its opening drive.

That slow start is not an indication that the Huskies’ offense, led by senior quarterback Jake Browning, isn’t productive. Browning leads an aerial arsenal that generates 253.1 yards per game on a 65.3 percent passing completion. That’s the key to Washington’s offense, and shutting it down will be the key to the Bears finding a way to top this top-25 team.

Stopping the Huskies will require Tim DeRuyter’s defense to deliver a one-two punch: a high-pressure blitz off the edge and a secondary that keeps everything in front of it. Based on how Cal’s defense has performed so far this season, it’s possible, but all gears will have to be in tune to make it deliverable.

Wins, though, can’t be generated simply by a strong defense. What will also be key in this game is Cal’s offense, particularly from the quarterback position. In the Bears’ recent 49-7 trouncing of Oregon State, it was Garbers who commanded under center. But prior to that game, Brandon McIlwain was gaining the majority of the reps — indeed, Cal’s offense jumps from quarterback to quarterback more quickly than at any other position.

Regardless of who earns the start (likely, Garbers), the Bears’ offense is going to have to bring some of the mojo that characterized its blowout win. That means accuracy in the air and efficiency on the ground — and will likely require a huge showing from running back Patrick Laird.

“A blowout win is something that you like to see, especially how we struggled in the past three weeks,” Garbers said. “I think the morale of the team after that was really high.”

Attempting to thwart that high morale is Washington’s 15th-best defense in the country, a disciplined and hard-hitting squad led by linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven — who has an NCAA-leading 108 total tackles in eight games. The Huskies have limited their opponents to a meager 308.6 yards per game.

“They’re really physical, just up front — they have a lot of things that they do really well,” Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin said. “They are very talented, strong, incredibly well-coached — they don’t get out of position.”

And for a Cal offense that has had trouble committing unnecessary turnovers for much of the season — Garbers and McIlwain have a combined 11 interceptions in seven games — that defense has the potential to wreak havoc.

“We need to clean up the unforced errors, and we understand that there’s a great challenge ahead of us and we have to be cleaner,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said.

If the win against Oregon State has truly pushed Cal back on the right path, this game against Washington will be the main determinant. With two more wins needed to secure a spot in a bowl game, a lot is riding on the next few weeks for the Bears — a win over the Huskies would alleviate some of the pressure that’s sure to come.

Sophie Goethals covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiegoethalss.