Washington seeks revenge for its most surprising loss of 2018
The Saturday before Halloween 2018, Cal stunned Washington in what was perhaps the biggest shocker of the Pac-12 season. The Huskies rallied from the loss to win the conference and return to the Rose Bowl for the first time in almost two decades, but Cal showed that its physical approach under head coach Justin Wilcox had it positioned as a player out West.
Washington's chance at retribution comes late Saturday at Husky Stadium, where the always-raucous home crowd is surely eager to see payback for 2018. For Cal, this is an opportunity to take another critical step toward its goal of ending the longest Rose Bowl drought in the conference.
Cal at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -13.5
When Cal Has the Ball
Cal reached seven wins in 2018 behind a defense that was College Football Playoff-caliber, but the Golden Bears could have won the Pac-12 with a better offense. The lingering questions about the offense persisted into Week 1 of 2019. Cal did not score against UC Davis until the second quarter and settled for field goals on two of its three first-half possessions.
Things picked up in the second when the Golden Bears broke a 13-13 tie with a pair of 67-yard scoring drives against an Aggies team that should contend for the FCS national championship. Those two possessions were much more indicative of Cal's overall offensive performance; scoring just 27 points belied the effectiveness, with the Golden Bears putting up just under 500 yards. Running back Christopher Brown Jr. was outstanding, gaining 197 yards with a 5.5 per-carry average.
Quarterback Chase Garbers was effective on his way to 238 passing yards, and he appeared to have found a No. 1 in Kekoa Crawford. Now the challenge is replicating the good from Week 1 and reversing the negative of unfinished drives against one of the most talented defenses in the nation.
Although Washington lost a ton from its championship-winning defense, including Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Burr-Kirven and a bevy of playmakers in a historically good secondary, the Huskies reloaded nicely. Benning Potoa'e's move to the defensive line appears to have the senior poised for a breakout, as he rolls into Week 2 coming off two sacks in the opener. With Elijah Molden stepping into one of the vacant starting roles in the secondary, there's no dip in talent. Passing against the Huskies may again be an issue.
When Washington Has the Ball
A persistent problem in both 2017 and 2018 for Washington was its inconsistent vertical passing game. After sustaining a shoulder injury late in 2016, which derailed his burgeoning Heisman campaign, quarterback Jake Browning never quite regained the same form. Never was it more evident than in the loss at Cal, when Chris Petersen benched the senior for a pivotal stretch in the second half.
All the while, Georgia transfer Jacob Eason bided his time as a redshirt. Eason made his long-awaited debut last week and absolutely torched 2018 FCS national runner-up Eastern Washington with 349 passing yards and four touchdowns. Washington's passing attack appears to now be a strength, with speedster Chico McClatcher's return to the lineup and tight end Hunter Bryant's return to health. Andre Baccellia was electric in Week 1, and Aaron Fuller scored on two of Eason's touchdown strikes. All that depth obfuscates the fact that Washington is playing without arguably its best deep-ball threat, Ty Jones.
The bigger question heading into Week 2 is the run game. Offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan relied on a committee to replace record-setting Myles Gaskin, and the veteran trio of Salvon Ahmed, Kamari Pleasant and Sean McGrew took something of a backseat to redshirt freshman Richard Newton. How the Huskies opt to attack an excellent Cal defense on the ground will be intriguing. Golden Bears linebacker Evan Weaver, a Washington state native, finished second in tackles last season behind only Burr-Kirven. Likewise, the Golden Bears secondary may be the deepest in the nation, so the diversity of the Huskies receiving rotation will be tested.
Here's where Jacob Eason's addition will be more telling for Washington's forecast. Justin Wilcox and his staff succeeded in completely turning around a moribund Cal defense immediately, and the Golden Bears are only getting better on that side of the ball. Washington's chops defensively under Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski are well established, but the turnover in the starting rotation might make this a rare occasion in which the opponent is the better defensive team.
That could turn Saturday's affair into a war of attrition. The Washington offense seems to be in a much better place than it was late October 2018, with both Hunter Bryant and Trey Adams healthy. That and home-field advantage should make the difference.
Prediction: Washington 28, Cal 13
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.