Brock Huard’s keys: No. 4 UW Huskies will try to hold down explosive Cal Bears
No. 4 Washington (8-0 overall, 5-0 Pac-12) vs. California (4-4, 2-3)
• Where: California Memorial Stadium (Berkeley, Calif.)
• Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
• TV: ESPN
• Line: Huskies by 17
Washington at a glance: The Huskies survived a nail-biting experience in Utah last week, beating the Utes 31-24 thanks to Dante Pettis’ tie-breaking punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The fact that Utah lost but rose a spot to No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll should tell you what kind of roll Washington has been on this year, though. The Huskies will have extra motivation this week, too, after being ranked fifth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, which means they wouldn’t be one of the four teams vying for the national championship if the season were to end today. Expect to see a UW team determined to make a point against the Bears on Saturday.
Cal at a glance: The Cal on offense is what you would expect considering the Bears are coached by Sonny Dykes, who comes from the coaching tree of Washington State’s Mike Leach. They take to the air about as much as anybody, and that’s why they’re ranked fourth in the country in passing offense (365.6 yards per game) and eighth in total offense (536.5 yards per game). Davis Webb is a dangerous quarterback, tied for fourth in the FBS with 2,914 passing yards, and he has several solid weapons to throw to, chiefly Chad Hansen (59 receptions, 770 yards, eight touchdowns). The Cal defense, however, is full of holes. The Bears are the worst team in the nation against the run, allowing 286.6 yards per game on the ground, and they rank better than only four other teams in total defense (505.9 yards allowed per game).
Brock Huard’s key No. 1 for UW: Limit the big plays for Cal. The Bears have a potent offense, especially at home, but they are a team that self destructs over the long term if they have to earn a win. When UW played Arizona on the road, the Wildcats hit explosive plays to turn the momentum and make life difficult in the desert for the Huskies. The Bears will similarly look for to take shots down the field, and Webb can chuck it as well as anyone in the conference, so minimizing Cal’s ability to make big plays will be priority No. 1.
Huard’s key No. 2: Take advantage of Cal’s poor rush defense. Facing the country’s worst defense against the run means there will be ample opportunity for Myles Gaskin and the Huskies’ backfield to gain yardage, and they will. This game won’t be decided on total yards, however. It will be decided by red zone scoring, and in particular touchdowns on trips inside the opponent’s 20. To look again at the Arizona game, UW was a double-digit favorite against the Wildcats, just like it is Saturday in Strawberry Canyon. It was empty trips to the red zone that forced the Arizona game to go to overtime, and that’s why it’s important for the Huskies to capitalize and score touchdowns.
Huard’s key No. 3: Win the battles on special teams. November is when we start seeing the games we will remember when the season is over, and it is often special teams that contribute in monster ways. In my freshman year with the Huskies, it was two missed field goals late in the game versus Oregon that kept us from playing in the Rose Bowl. It was a botched punt at Arizona State my second year that led the Sun Devils to a late scoring drive and a trip to Pasadena as we finished second in the conference. And it was a week ago that a punt-return touchdown proved to be the biggest play in the Huskies’ win in Salt Lake City. UW has an enormous depth advantage over a beat up Cal team, and special teams must be a forcible win and not a stalemate when this kind of matchup exists, especially on the road.