We finally begin the Pac-12 conference games with a visit to Seattle to face the 2-1 Washington Huskies. The California Golden Bears are undefeated after a heart stopping 1 point win against Texas. Last year when the Huskies traveled to Berkeley, Cal was 4-1 and had just come off of a similarly insane 1 point victory against WSU. That win against WSU was the high point of the 2014 season as the Bears would lose to Washington and only win one more game all year long. This week's game against UW is critical as a win would put Cal football on a totally different trajectory as a program. This year has the opportunity for new powerhouses to rise as teams, like Oregon and Stanford, who have dominated the Pac-12 North have been unimpressive in their early season games.
What stands in the way of the ascent the Cal Bears squad is a Husky team coached by one of the best in college football, Chris Petersen, and led by a phenom true freshman quarterback Jake Browning. Former Cal quarterback and quarterback coach Troy Taylor coached Browning at Folsom High School in Northern California where he threw a national record 91 touchdowns in his senior season.
Last year I wrote about Chris Petersen's offensive philosophy which involves a lot of pre-snap movement to create advantageous match ups for his players. This year there has been a noted lack of that movement. According to Petersen this isn't because of Jake Browning:
We don’t slow down because of him and I’ve said that during the week. We slow down because of the group a little bit. It’s just too much and were trying to push that fine line of being creative enough and get some guys off balance but not so much to where we are confusing ourselves.
I would expect more pre-snap movement to show up every game. This is an improving Huskie team and after watching their first game against Boise State I thought they would surprise people with their record at the end of the year . The most significant improvement shown his last week against Utah State was the emergence of a big play maker. In a game where Petersen said at halftime "We aren't even getting 3 yards and a cloud of dust." which held true to the end of the game as Washington averaged just 2.1 yards per rush, it was the big play which sustained the offense.
Dwayne Washington #12, the Junior Tailback, had a breakout performance with 133 yards of total offense, only 2 of those yards on the ground. His first big play was on a little pass to the flat that allowed him to turn the football game into a track meet.
His second big play came when he was once again lined up at running back, this time he ran straight down the middle of the field where Browning found him wide open behind the defense for a touchdown.
The Utah State coach was more annoyed by the trick plays that Washington was able to run, "We knew they were coming'" he said at the half "we just could not stop them." Trick plays are always part of Petersen's game plan and he used them against Utah State early in the game when his offense was struggling. The first was a pitch to the running back which was lateraled back to Jake Browning who completed a pass for 21 yards.
The second came after Utah State had forced a 4th down and apparent UW field goal attempt at the goal line.
Look at the kicker before the snap, he is so nervous about getting the ball that he false starts, which the officials miss somehow.
These trick plays are not a gimmick, but a scheme designed to get the ball carrier into open space on the field. Here is a play which is not considered a trick play but is set up to try to break a big gain. Washington is lined up on the right hash with a tailback, #12 Washington, one receiver to the top of the screen and three receivers bunched to the bottom. The bunch formation means that the entire field from the left hash to the sideline is devoid of defenders. Now Petersen just has to get the ball over there.
Browning is going to toss the ball to Washington on a Sweep play with Harbaugh-esque blocking (and chaotic arrows). Three linemen pull, both the back side Guard and Tackle along with the play side Guard. As this play is designed to stretch the field to the left, the back side offensive linemen would be standing around doing nothing as the play runs away from them. Instead of standing there like a fence, they pull and attempt to block the linebackers in the middle. The play side Left Guard pulls out to lead block for the running back.
The Utah State linebackers foil this play by following their key, the guards. Linebackers are taught to follow the Guards because the pulling linemen will lead the defender to where the ball is going. Utah State is able to string the play out to the sideline and prevent Washington from getting around the edge of the defense.
Once Utah State proves that they are good at their fundamentals, Chris Petersen starts to use those fundamentals against them. Look the exact same formation! Once again the field from the left hash to the sideline is empty.
The linemen block to their left and the running back heads off toward the sweep. The defense recognizes this play, they stopped it once and will stop it again. The linebackers all head toward where the running back is going... But this time it is a fake!
The wide receivers head out into pass patterns and the defensive backs are frozen. They thought they would once again have to prevent the running back from getting to the edge and are unable to recover in time to stop this passing play.
The Washington offense will test the Golden Bear defense. They will make the Bears run sideline to sideline and then punish them for over-pursuit. Utah State did an excellent job of controlling the Huskies' running game but they gave up 368 yards through the air to Jake Browning. The game will likely rest upon the shoulders of the true freshman once again and last week he showed that he is up to the task.
Washington is young and improving but their defense is not up to stopping Cal's Goffense and their offense is unable to sustain drives without trick plays or big plays. If the Golden Bear defense can limit the big plays and not fall for the trick plays they will generate the stops needed to finally win in Seattle and announce themselves as a Pac-12 North contender.