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Washington Preview: Veteran Quarterback, Stout Defense, What Else is New?

Cal is coming off its best game of the year, unfortunately the Bears can’t play Oregon State every week. After trouncing the outmanned Beavers last Saturday the Bears come home to face the powerful Washington Huskies (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12). Don’t look for another 49-7 win.

The OSU game marked the end of the soft part of the Bears schedule (the last three teams they played are a collective 6-16). The next three are 16-9, and none figures to be tougher than the Huskies, ranked No. 15 in the country.

The key to their success has been a dominating defense, nothing new in Seattle. The offense has not been flashy but good enough. Both units hey have savvy experienced players supplemented by talented newcomers.

The defense nationally ranks 10th in scoring (15.6 points per game),14th in passing yards allowed (174.3 ypg) and 16th in total defense (308.6 ygg). They also have the nation’s leading tackler in linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, who hails from the Bay Area.

Offensively quarterback Jake Browning (above) is the most prolific passer in school history, and it only seems like he has been the Huskies leader since the first Reagan administration. He has started every game but one since his freshman year of 2015 and has led them to a 35-11 record..

“He just runs their offense really well, he can throw the football, makes good decisions,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said this week. “He is a really efficient guy. He’s played a lot, he’s seen every look. He’s a veteran.”

Washington will be missing some offensive weapons, probably including the school’s all-time leading rusher, but have capable replacements.

Washington coach Chris Petersen, who put Boise State and its blue turf on the national football map, has kept it up at Washington. The Huskies are 43-18 since he took over in 2014 and are after a third straight Pac-12 North title. “He’s a good person, a great coach and I have a ton of respect for him,” Wilcox said. “Always will.”

 

A closer look at the Huskies

 

Offense

 

Browning, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, is the Washington career leader with 11,005 passing yards and 89 touchdown passes. He is not the most athletic quarterback, nothing like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, but he is certainly good enough.

Critics say he sometimes runs into sacks while trying to avoid the rush, and reports say the coaches are constantly urging him to run upfield rather than retreat when being pursued. Also he doesn’t have the strongest arm. But pick any passing stat you want and Browning’s name will be among the school’s leaders.

He has a great complement in running back Myles Gaskin, the school’s all-time rushing leader with 4,678 yards. However, Gaskin is doubtful for Saturday after missing last week’s victory over Colorado with an injury. That is the first time in his four-year career that he was sidelined.

The Huskies made up for Gaskin’s absence with a sophomore trio of Salvon Ahmed, Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant. Ahmed was the most prolific with 73 yards and a touchdown. He might have had more except his youthful exuberance got the better of him and he made a slashing gesture across his throat after his TD.  The following unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost the Huskies 15 yards and Ahmed some time on the bench in Petersen’s penalty box. McGrew had 58 yards rushing and Pleasant added 35, both running for touchdowns.

“Stuff happens in this game, it’s a violent game, you need to have depth. Some guys have to come in and make some plays,” Browning said after the game. “I think Sean and Kamari did some good stuff, Salvon continued to play at a high level like he has all season.”

The three have contrasting styles. Ahmed, a blue-chip recruit two years ago, is the fastest. McGrew is good at picking his spots, much the same way Gaskin does. Pleasant, 6-0, 204, is the biggest and best in short yardage.

Wide receiver Aaron Fuller leads the Huskies with 42 receptions for 652 yards and three touchdowns. He broke open and caught the game-winning TD against Colorado on a fourth down play from the Buffs’ 25.

“He’s been really consistent,” Browning said recently. “Pretty much whatever you ask him to do, he’s able to do.”

Wilcox agrees. “He’s got great athleticism, he’s a really good route runner,” the Cal coach said. “Good speed, great range. I think you saw the one last week, one-handed. He can down the field on crossing routes, he can catch the quick pass, and make a guy miss. He’s a really good player.”

Wide receiver Quentin Pounds, who was an important part of the passing game in the first six games, was lost for the season with an injury. However in Ty Jones (20 catches, 359 yards, 5 TDs) and Aaron Baccellia (20, 229, 0) the Huskies don’t lack for talent at the position.

Senior Drew Sample and redshirt freshman Cade Otton have given the Huskies capable tight end play. Hunter Bryant, a favorite Browning target in the red zone a year ago has been out all year, but is “getting close” to making his 2018 debut, according to Petersen. He would represent a pass-catching upgrade.

The offensive line is big and experienced. Trey Adams, the returning starter at left tackle, was injured before the opener, hasn’t played and is likely done for the year. Other than that the line has been able to stay healthy. Center Nick Harris missed one start and that’s it. The other O-linemen have started every game. Massive right tackle Kaleb McGary (6-8, 324) was first team All Pac-12 a year ago.

Much like Ca, the Huskies have not generated many “explosive” plays, gains of 25 yards or longer. Petersen believes they will come.

“I still think we have some explosive guys,” Petersen said at his press conference this week. “We’re always trying to find a way to shake guys loose and the best way to attack a defense. Cal, going into this week, is really, really good against the pass. You do take those things into consideration. So how do you attack them the best you can and let your playmakers go.”

Defense

Washington has had the Pac-12’s best defense the last three years and this year’s group is continuing the trend. “They are really physical up front and they are fast,” Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin said. “They have a lot of things they do really well. They don’t necessarily have try to create chaos. A lof of their base stuff and their players can create a lot of that chaos. They are talented and strong and well-coached.

“They don’t get out of position. They understand leverages, they understandf route concepts. They understand the running game and where guys are working to. They have a great understanding of the game. They are talented, physical and they stay relatively simple, that’s the beauty of it. They have the ability to play fast and strong by staying relatively simple.”

It starts with Burr-Kirven, who is almost a defense unto himself. He played all 63 defensive snaps against Colorado and recorded 15 tackles. He has 108 tackles for the season, most of anybody in the country. At 6-0, 220 he is smallish by today’s standards for a middle linebacker. Browning tells critics what they can do with their tape measure.

“He is unbelievable,” the quarterback said. “I think it’s funny that a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, he’s too short.’ And I’m too short and I don’t have a strong enough arm. And Myles (Gaskin) is too short. But I think we’ve won a lot of games in the Pac-12 with people who are ‘too-something’ and ‘not good enough for this or that.’ So bring it.”

Senior Greg Gaines, 6-2, 315, is an All-American calibre nose tackle, who creates a lot of havoc in the 3-4 alignment the Huskies use. 

If there is a weakness, at least statistically,  it is the pass rush, or lack thereof. The Huskies have only ten sacks, in eight games, while Cal, whose pass rush has also been an issue, has 16 in seven games. But that doesn’t mean quarterbacks have an easy time of it against the Huskies.

“They affect the quarterback absolutely,” WIlcox said this week. “Whatever the sack numbers are, you turn the video on, they are affecting the quarterback.

“They are a pretty big four-man rush team, some three-man, a little bit of five-man. But they do it with four guys and they are really hard to block. Whether it’s speed or power … they run some stunts in there, too, and mix it up. Their cover guys do a great job. It’s a combination.”

The secondary of corners Jordan Miller and Myles Bryant and safeties Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh all started last year and their experience shows.

The Huskies are minus two on turnovers, something uncharacteristic of a UDub team. They have just three interceptions this year, and one was by Burr-Kirven against Colorado.  

 

Special teams

 

Peyton Henry is 11-for-15 on field goal tries this year, including 5-for-8 from 30 yards or beyond. However, the 37-yarder he missed at the end of regulation against Oregon haunts. For those who dismiss the concept of “icing” a kicker by calling timeouts (count me among them) should take note that it seemed to work that time. Oregon called a couple of timeouts as Henry was preparing to kick, one just before he drilled a kick through the uprights. The tactic certainly worked this time.

The Huskies have used two punters, Royce Porter and Joel Whitford, and the result has been a league-worst average of 34.0 yards. However, Porter did manage a 56-yarder against Oregon.

The return game is nothing Cal should worry about, at least according to the stats. Washington averages just 4.6 yards per punt return and 20.7 on kickoffs.

Overall

Petersen is nothing if not adaptable. Against Colorado he faced a fourth down in much the same circumstances he had at the end of the Oregon game. But this time he did not try to kick the field goal and Browning came through with the pass to Fuller. It ended perhaps the most impressive drive of the season.

“It’s huge, man,” first-year offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said. “Any time you start wherever we started on that drive (at the UW 16-yard line) with the game on the line, being able to execute in a conference like this — that’s what it comes down to, those kinds of drives. We’re obviously happy to finish that.”

Wilcox certainly knows what Petersen and the Huskies are capable of. The Bears, double-digit underdogs, will need their best effort of the year on Saturday. Even what they did against Oregon State probably won’t be good enough. They’re not in Corvallis anymore.

 

Notes

 

Washington leads the series 54-39-4 … . Last season, UW held Cal to 93 yards of total offense in a 33-7 win. … In 2016, Jake Browning threw for six TDs and 378 yards on 19-for-28 passing to lead UW to a 66-27 win. …Since 1947 Washington is 214-66-3 (.761) when a Husky player rushes for 100 yards in a game.. … UW is 31-7 over its last 38 games … Washington hasn’t allowed a team to score 40 points in its last 52 games and, during that same span, has allowed over 30 only four times.

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