In the three years I have been writing for CGB I have written about Washington a handful of times. Nearly all of those times have included Myles Gaskin and Jake Browning. In what has nearly become an annual tradition, Chris Petersen brings along Browning and Gaskin to face a Bears defense that continues to get better. Of all of the matchups in the last three years, this is without a doubt the best Cal defense the Huskies will face and one that should cause real concern for the Huskies offense. Add in the news that the Huskies might not even have Gaskin on the field due to injury (shoulder) this Saturday and this becomes a solid opportunity for the Bears defense to show just how far they have come.
The Chris Petersen years have been quite kind to Washington. The Huskies enter each year with college football playoff dreams and despite the absurdly unprofessional ESPN coverage of last season’s out of conference schedule, the Huskies do a good job of getting out of their own way when it comes to scheduling. This year the Huskies went out and played a top ten team on the road in their season opener and outside of an upset against Oregon, have looked the part of a perennial Pac-12 north contender.
The Huskies are 6th overall in S&P+, and rate 25th in Off. S&P+ and 6th in Def. S&P+. They are the definition of a balanced team but if there is one area that has slightly regressed this year it certainly has been on offense. Previous Huskies offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith was hired as the head coach of Oregon State and the aforementioned Jake Browning hasn’t progressed into the superstar that many expected him to be after his freshman year. What does that ultimately mean for Saturday? The Bears’ ability to win this football game depends heavily on their defense stopping a somewhat vulnerable Washington offense and giving the Cal offense as many chances as they can get to put points on the board. As is most often the case when playing Washington, none of this will be remotely easy on Saturday.
The Washington Offense
The strength of the Washington offense lies with their offensive line. Against Colorado last week, the offensive line made up all five of their highest graded offensive players on Pro Football Focus. That can help to explain how a team that lost Myles Gaskin, who by the way had never missed a Pac-12 game in his career, runs for 200+ yards against Colorado. Nick Harris is a stud, particularly in run blocking, and senior Kaleb McGary is projected to head to the NFL after the end of the season. The Huskies have done an equally good job at keeping quarterback Jake Browning upright, allowing just over one and a half sacks per game this season. If the Bears can’t get pressure on Browning similar to their struggle against UCLA, it could be an incredibly frustrating and long day in Memorial Stadium.
If there has been one knock against Washington the last two years it has been there lack of explosive players. Dante Pettis, now with the 49ers, was the last real explosive threat the Huskies have had at receiver and even Browning, Smith and Petersen couldn’t find a way to get him more involved last season. Aaron Fuller has been more than capable at receiver all year long crossing the century mark four times already. He will draw the Cam Bynum assignment which should be an incredibly fun matchup to watch.
Which Jake Browning will we see on Saturday?
The fourth year quarterback seemed poised to have a stellar final sendoff breaking nearly every Washington passing record in the book but the 2018 novel hasn’t been quite that glamorous. For the growing contingent of Browning non-believers, Jake has been inconsistent this season and has already thrown an uncharacteristic amount of interceptions. His touchdown to interception ratio is 11/7 and his adjusted QBR is a bit better than his 2017 mark of 71.9. The Cal defense has focused the last two weeks on creating turnovers and it will be important for the Bears to force Browning to make a few mistakes this weekend.
The Run Game Potentially not Featuring Myles Gaskin
The run game in tandem with the offensive line is the strength of this offense. The Huskies average 177 yards per game and over two scores per contest from their rushing offense. The 2018 season has been a healthy dose of Myles Gaskin in tandem with Salvon Ahmed. Gaskin, if healthy, is an absolute nightmare matchup for Cal. He tore up UCLA and Utah for over 100 yards and is on pace for his fourth consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season. He will undoubtedly finish as one of the most, if not the most, heralded running back in Washington history.
Ahmed has been a newer revelation, breaking onto the scene this year as a sophomore and leading the team in rushing against Colorado last week. Where as Gaskin chews up teams with consistent gains of 5-7 yards, Ahmed has the ability to break away and adds a speed element to the Husky offense.
The Huskies have opened up their playbook to feature Ahmed and don’t be shocked if there are at least a few designed plays to get him the ball in space even if Gaskin ends up on the field.
What to Expect Saturday
The Bears’ chances in this game rest on the defense getting off the field early and often. If the Bears secondary can lock up Fuller, which I fully expect them to be able to do, the biggest question will be how effectively can the Bears can stop the run. The Bears struggled mightily against UCLA’s bigger offensive line, allowing the Bruins to dominate time of possession and put the pressure on the Cal offense to beat them. Simply put, the Bears cannot allow Washington to execute a similar game plan. If Cal can force Washington into passing downs, Browning has shown enough frequency with his mistakes this year to give the Bears a shot at getting a couple of turnovers. Should that happen, there may be a chance at Cal pulling the upset at home.