“Washington is one of the most overrated teams heading into this season”-Andy Johnston on the Bearcast. Outside of starting a post with my own quote, that might be the most embarrassing thing I have said this season (key word, might).
Chris Petersen has his team rolling into Bear territory Saturday night, where Washington seeks revenge for the Cal victory last year in Husky stadium. If the Huskies needed any more motivation, they got it, as the playoff committee left them unjustly behind a 7-1 Texas A&M team that needed overtime to beat UCLA.
Quite possibly the scariest line from our friend Bill Connely’s season preview for Washington was this quote “when the Huskies found an advantage, they exploited it with ruthless efficiency”. It is very clear coming into Saturday that Cal’s weakness is their run defense which presents a less than ideal matchup for the Bears, as our writer Piotr astutely summarized below:
If @UW_Football is smart, they will run at @CalFootball on every down. No need for passes. UW O.Rushing S&P+ is = 16 and Cal D = 109— Piotr Le (@PiotrLe) November 2, 2016
The Huskies bring in the best defense in the conference, yielding a measly 15.8 points per game. On the flip side, Cal brings in the best offense in the Pac-12 and something will have to give Saturday night when the two collide in Berkeley. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the standout defensive units for the Huskies.
What happens when an already talented defense returns most of its young core? Well, to put it simply it looks a lot like what Washington has this season. Depth across the field and the best defense in the conference. Just for perspective, Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has produced a defense ranked no worse than eleventh in the nation in defensive S&P in four of his six years working with Petersen. That level of consistency across a power five conference and the Mountain West is what can eventually lead towards a head coaching position.
The Washington defensive line most likely will return one of its better players this Saturday as Joe Mathis looks to return from injury. Mathis plays an outside linebacker/defensive end role for the Huskies and led the team in tackles as well as sacks at the time of his injury. Familiar face Elijah Qualls returns and Vita Vea has been a force for the Huskies all season long. To make things worse, Vea and Greg Gaines (who is tied with Mathis for the team lead in sacks this year) are only sophomores so this defensive line unit is only going to get better over the next couple of seasons.
The Cal offensive line will have its hands full after a very strong performance against USC. The Bears surrendered zero sacks against a defense known for the pressure it puts on the quarterback. The Bears strength all season long has been their offensive line and if they can give Davis Webb time we all know how lethal the Bear Raid can be.
The Husky linebackers are led by future NFLer Azeem Victor who has put up a seasons worth of numbers just past the halfway mark. He has a team high 64 tackles, 43 solo with three tackles for loss and he is solid in pass coverage. Keishawn Bierria also returns for the Huskies and is second on the team with tackles while outperforming Victor in the turnover department. These two pace the Huskies defense and together account for over 100 of the Huskies’ tackles in the 2016 season.
The Huskies returned eight, yes eight, of their eleven linebackers from last year. Even without the aforementioned Victor and Bierria, this team has depth that makes Cal’s depth (or lack thereof) at linebacker look foolish.
The Husky defense is most vulnerable at the beginning of games and progressively improves to an absolute shutdown unit by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. The Bears will have to strike early and hope that Khalfani Muhammed can establish some sort of success running the ball to balance the Bear Raid aerial attack.
The Washington secondary takes the linebackers eight of eleven returning starters and raises them seven of eight returning defensive backs. Correct, seven of eight defensive backs returned to an already top 25 ranked defense.
The amount of bold (denotes a returning player) in this graphic is depressing, or rather amazing, depending on which side your on. The Huskies not only return nearly all of their players from last year but many of them have game experience, something that Cal’s reserves lack.
The Washington pass defense surrenders 171.9 yards per game through the air, tenth best in the country. The secondary is paced by Budda Baker at safety who is a tackling machine and also can disrupt a backfield. Senior Kevin King, who leads the Huskies in passes defended, will most likely have Chad Hansen duty come Saturday. Hansen will have his work cut out for him if he gets that assignment first game back from injury. JoJo McIntosh plays opposite of Baker and possesses the size to keep up with some of Cal’s bigger offensive weapons.
Davis Webb has played extremely well against blitzes this season and it will be up to him to play a mistake free game Saturday night. The task in front of him is not by any means easy but Arizona showed that this defense is vulnerable at times, most often early in games.
It is quite the challenge to find even an optimistic view of what might unfold on Saturday. The Bears have found a sustained formula of success playing behind their experienced offensive line and they hold the most recent victory over the Huskies. The Bears have a legitimate opportunity to make their 2016 campaign an indisputable success with a win Saturday night.
Should the game go the opposite direction, Dykes might be better off playing some younger athletes to start to build a foundation similar to what Petersen has established at Washington.