Instant analysis/reaction: Cal earns 5th win of 2018 behind defensive masterpiece

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Key takeaway

Redshirt freshman Jake Haener entered the game under center for the Huskies at the 1:56 mark of third quarter, replacing a struggling Jake Browning who did not have an injury designation at the time of his benching. A few plays later, Evan Weaver read Haener’s eyes over the middle of the field, snatching his first career interception — and subsequently, his first career pick-six after stretching for the goal line and knocking down the pylon on a 37-yard return.

The interception was Washington’s second of the game, while on the flip side, the typically turnover-plagued Bears did not give it away once Saturday. Head coach Justin Wilcox has stressed the importance of avoiding self-inflicted mistakes, and the Bears’ ineffective offense did have that bright spot to its name. When Browning did return, he came in with 11:37 remaining in the game, and the Huskies were trailing by just 5 points with favorable field position. But Cal’s defense was ready again — bending at times, but hardly breaking.

Cal’s game MVP

The whole defense. With a shoutout to Patrick Laird, Cal’s workhorse for the entirety of the evening, Cal’s defense played its heart out, and singling out a single individual as the MVP seems almost criminal when there is no “I” in the words “defense” or “team.”

Weaver, Alex Funches, Camryn Bynum and company struggled to open the game, unable to get off the field on a pair of third-and-longs and a key fourth down when Browning was able to escape the pocket. But time and time again, the defense forced the Myles Gaskin-less Huskies from moving forward, flipping the field position in favor of Cal’s equally struggling offense. On that note, punter Steven Coutts also deserves a shoutout for once again executing all but one of his punts in nearly perfect fashion.

Gaskin’s absence wasn’t evident until Washington’s running back committee became the game plan early and often. But neither Kamari Pleasant, Sean McGrew nor Salvon Ahmed could make a significant dent in Cal’s stone-cold front, as Husky rushers combined for just 91 yards on the ground. While Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk have garnered the majority of the headlines this season, Funches deserves a lot of credit as well, stepping up huge in the wake of Cameron Goode’s season-long absence.

Eye-opening stat

Arguably Cal’s best defensive plays came on a pair of interceptions from Bynum and Weaver, both of which were equally impressive in their own right. But the stat that deserves the most noise is the sheer number of tackles for loss combined between the two teams. Washington’s defense, anchored by linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven and lineman Greg Gaines, gave Laird and quarterback Chase Garbers all they could handle throughout the whole game, as the Huskies recorded nine tackles for loss to their name.

On the flip side, the Bears picked up an eye-opening eight such plays, good for 39 yards.

Also for the first time in 2018? A game with zero turnovers from the Cal offense.

Looking ahead

The Bears will make the long trip to Pullman, Washington, for an uphill grind against transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew and the upstart Cougars next weekend, who are fresh off a huge win on the road against No. 24 Stanford. For Cal, the path to six wins got a whole lot easier with the team’s biggest win of 2018, as Wilcox got the best of his former mentor Chris Petersen in a defensive showdown for the ages.

Minshew and the Washington State offense have been electric in nearly all facets, but with the way Cal’s defense performed Saturday evening, the 11-headed monster deserves the respect it’s worked hard to earn.

Josh Yuen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.