Even though the 15th-ranked Huskies entered this season with lofty expectations, the reality of their situation is that they will need to get plenty of help from their friends and rivals to have any shot at getting into the College Football Playoff. Washington's chances are considered to be in the long-shot variety, at best.
But first things first — a win in Week 9 over the host Golden Bears at Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium. Both Pac-12 North Division crews come into this game on the heels of victory.
The Huskies held off a stiff test from the visiting Colorado Buffaloes for a 27-13 triumph to improve to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in conference action, which puts them in first place in the division, for now.
Meanwhile, the Golden Bears sit at 4-3 overall and just 1-3 mark in conference play, placing them fifth in the division ahead of just one other team — Oregon State, whom Cal thumped last weekend, 49-7.
Washington at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which California team will show up?
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Cal, which opened with three straight non-conference victories to look like a willing bunch ready for Pac-12 primetime. But when the conference lights switched on, the Golden Bears seemed to go into hibernation, dropping a trio of games to quickly fall out of the AP Top 25. Turnovers marred those losses against Pac-12 opposition, and the play of sophomore quarterback Brandon McIlwain left a lot to be desired.
The cold snap, which included an ugly loss to the previously winless UCLA Bruins, also left Cal without a conference win in 14 road contests dating back to the 2015 season against Saturday's opponent, Washington. Then came a visit to Oregon State in Week 8 — just what the doctor ordered — and the Bears rediscovered their early season touch by destroying the Beavers, a team that has struggled all season long.
Freshman QB Chase Garbers replaced McIlwain in the game in Corvallis and put up nice numbers — 17-for-26 for 234 yards and three touchdowns. This performance came after he missed the previous two weeks and provided the team with a jolt. For the season, Garbers has 727 passing yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Compare that to McIlwain, who has tossed three times as many picks (seven) as TDs (two), although he's known more his ability to make things happen with his legs. McIllwain is second on the team in rushing with 398 yards and four scores.
Beating Oregon State, even on the road, is one thing. The question for the Bears' offense is not just which quarterback will get the snaps, but how will this unit fare against a defense that's ranked in the top 20 nationally in both yards and points allowed per game?
2. Will Washington's stars come out to shine?
Washington quarterback Jake Browning finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting just two seasons ago. But since then, the senior has struggled to find that superstar consistency.
Take for instance his performance in Week 8, when he couldn't find his rhythm at home against Colorado. It wasn’t until a 26-yard TD pass to Aaron Fuller on 4th-and-5 with less than four minutes remaining that Browning came through when his team needed him to. He finished the game a pedestrian 15-of-25 for 150 yards with a TD and interception for a 67.2 QB rating.
Meanwhile, Browning’s co-star in the backfield, senior RB Myles Gaskin, sat out the game due to a banged-up shoulder suffered in the Week 7 loss to Oregon. After going through pregame warmups, he wasn't cleared to play and missed the first game in his impressive college career.
The good news is that Huskies head coach Chris Peterson said earlier this week that Gaskin is likely to be ready to play against Cal. Along with Gaskin’s probable return comes the long-awaited one by sophomore tight end Hunter Bryant, who has yet to play this season because of a knee injury. Gaskins and Bryant will give Browning even more weapons to work with as he looks to bounce back from his subpar showing against the Buffaloes.
3. What’s the rush?
With or without Gaskin, the Huskies seem to be set for a strong rushing game against the Bears. Last week, Washington ran for a season-high 201 yards in the win over Colorado.
Sophomores Salvon Ahmed (73 yards), Sean McGrew (58) and Kamari Pleasant (35) all got in on the act with Browning chipping in 25 on the ground as well. Gaskin's return would add to the challenge facing Cal's defense, which did a good job last week against Oregon State, although it was helped out greatly by an injury.
The Beavers' Jermar Jefferson, who is fifth in the country in rushing, was hobbled by a hamstring injury, which limited him to just two carries (which he gained 34 yards on). As a team, Oregon State managed just 95 yards on 41 carries (2.3 ypc). The week prior, UCLA went off for 207 rushing yards in its win over Cal while Oregon picked up 260 on the ground in their game against the Bears back on Sept. 29.
However, Cal ate up plenty of real estate of its own last week, gashing the Beavers for 305 rushing yards. The Bears ran the ball 43 times and still managed to average 7.1 yards per attempt. Patrick Laird was the workhorse, picking up 193 and two touchdowns on 22 carries. It was Laird's sixth 100-yard game in his career.
But once again that came against an Oregon State defense that has given up more rushing yards than all but two FBS teams (Connecticut, Bowling Green). Washington is on the opposite side of the spectrum, as the Huskies' 134.4 rushing yards allowed per game is less than half of what the Beavers (274.6) are surrendering.
One team (Cal) seems to have righted the ship while the other (Washington) can’t let its guard down if it wants to stay in the College Football Playoff conversation, as unlikely as that seems given the present landscape. Whichever team comes out on top in this Pac-12 North tilt may be the one whose defense is likely to bend most without breaking. In that case, advantage Washington.
Hanging 49 points on the Huskies, which is what the Golden Bears did last week against Oregon State, isn't likely to happen. It certainly doesn’t help that Cal’s star left guard Mike Saffell is done for the season with a lower-body injury. Washington, however, has the firepower to put the Bears' defense on its heels regardless of whether Myles Gaskin plays or Jake Browning is at his best.
The only issue for the Huskies might be the age-old football issue of looking ahead to a final stretch of games that includes the Apple Cup against archrival and legitimate Pac-12 contender Washington State. Any lack of focus or effort could certainly bite the Dawgs — especially against a Cal team that seems to have rediscovered its confidence.
But in the end, look for Washington to make the necessary plays to live up to their No. 15 ranking and keep its slim playoff hopes alive.