This is a game about so much more than just Xs and Os.
Clearly one of the biggest storylines heading into tonight's game against the Huskies is Cal's faceoff against former defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi and to a lesser extent, former offensive coordinator Eric Keisau. I'm not going to sit here and rehash what's been beaten to death literally thousands of times, but you can read my recap of the events here, and my thoughts on what I thought it meant for Cal's future.
Long story short: the Cal community felt royally F'd over by Lupoi, and felt Friday's game would be their long-awaited opportunity to get theirs. Two conference squads battling it out in a Friday night contest. Under the lights. New Memorial Stadium. ESPN. Bad blood. It had all the makings of an absolutely electric game.
Well, it hasn't really worked out the ways anyone had expected. Both the Bears and Huskies have struggled this season, but the Bears' woes are far more pronounced with a disappointing Cal's 3-6 season that's likely to cost Jeff Tedford his job. Compounding the frustration was the Bears'complete faceplant last weekend against Utah.
One of the sources of hope for the Bears is that they don't need to be perfect to beat the Huskies. While the Huskies have notched two big upsets this season, beating a ranked Stanford team and ending Oregon State's unbeaten record last Saturday, they've struggled on the road and their offense hasn't come close to matching last season's production.
Still, it doesn't matter what the other team does or doesn't do. If there's anything the team has shown us this season, its that so many of their issues are self-inflicted. The Huskies are ridiculously beatable. Whether that happens depends wholly on which Cal team shows up.
The Huskies are 4-4 on the season, and you still get the sense that no one can be really sure what exactly to make of the Huskies. They've shown they're not quite ready to be considered upper-tier, having been blown out in their losses to LSU, USC, Oregon and Arizona, teams that were clearly better squads. Yet, they've beaten quality teams like Stanford and Oregon State, so they can clearly do some good things when all the cards fall right. They've been a bit difficult to figure out.
Similarly, given their opening schedule which has been absolutely brutal, it's hard to read into their stats which might indicate they're flat out atrocious in some categories. Check out some of their offensive numbers: ranked nationally 108th in total offense (322 ypg), 105th in scoring offense (20.6 ppg), 97th in rush offense (126 ypg), 106th in 3rd down converstions (34%), and 104th in sacks allowed (23).
Washington's defense, while much improved from last season's train wreck of a squad, has seen its share of issues in the trenches and ranks 90th nationally in run defense (185 ypg) and is ranked 101st in the nation in sacks recorded (just 11).
But again, consider their competition, and the mixed results, and it's hard to get a real sense of what those numbers really say.
Here's what we do know
The Huskies have struggled on the road, and that's not just this season, but in all of Coach Sark's tenure up in Seattle.
For all of Washington's offensive playmakers (Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Kasen Williams, Keith Price), they've failed to put it together due to the battery of issues at the offensive line. Even when Price has had time, he's been uncharacteristically flustered and erratic in his accuracy, which is a stark contrast to his spectacular play last season.
The Huskies have definitely been hurt by the lack of depth at the tailback position. Bishop Sankey has filled in well with 666 yards and 9 TDs this season, but he isn't nearly the workhorse that Chris Polk was last year and opposing defenses haven't had to give him nearly enough attention.
And again, for all of Washington's improvements, they haven't held an opponent to under 41 points this season on the road. Granted, their road opponents have been LSU, Oregon and Arizona, but their propensity to be blown out has to be troubling.
Cal Wins If...
I guess the larger point here is that for all of the mysterious surrounding Washington, the team can certainly be had. As I said before, none of this matters if the Bears continue to shoot themselves in the foot. With word now that Keenan Allen may be out for the season, this has all the makings of a disastrous game for the Bears.
First and foremost, the Bears need to establish the run, and thankfully Washington's inexperience at defensive line gives us some opportunities. The Huskies shut down Stanford's Stepfan Taylor earlier in the year, but they're not nearly as stout up front as Cal's previous two opponents in Stanford and Utah. This is a game where a healthy CJ Anderson should make a world of difference in grinding out tough yards and setting up the Bears for manageable third downs.
While Allen is out, this may end up being a blessing in forcing Maynard to be that much more conscientious about going through his reads. It's not as if he'll have a lack of playmakers, with Richard Rodgers, Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs (who should be healed from his sprained ankle) have all shown solid ability this season. Their's the more likely scenario that Maynard gets frozen after realizing there's no #21 as his safety valve, but there is the hope that the coaches have developed a gameplan designed to spread the ball out to his playmakers, and keep Washington's defense from locking down on one player.
And notice I didn't even mention the utilization of Brendan Bigelow. Remember, I gave up trying to figure that one out. Defensively, the key is to the same thing that opposing defenses have done to the Huskies all year. Send the house against Washington's makeshift offensive line, hone in on big Sefarian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams and pressure Keith Price. Price has fantastic ability on the run, but the Bears need to knock him over and over again. Get Price flustered, and this Washington offense stalls time and time again. The Huskies haven't scored more than 21 against a non-FCS team. Just chew on that.
The Huskies can be beaten, but the question has always been whether the Bears are up to the task of being that team. So let's not get it twisted: this isn't the case of the Bears going up against a vastly superior squad. The Bears match up well against the Huskies other than the matchup problem that Austin Sefarian-Jenkins poses.
With that said, Cal's performance against Utah last weekend that it doesn't matter who's on the other side if the Bears lose sight of their defensive assignments, make special team gaffes and get manhandled in the trenches.
And you can't think that it won't be for a lack of motivation. While the coaches are likely not saying anything publicly, you have to think players haven't forgotten. Players like Aaron Tipoti or Kendrick Payne can't have forgotten their position coach literally leaving in the middle of the night without a phone call or a goodbye.
Maybe it's all a pipe dream, but here's hoping the Bears turn up for this one, because it might be their last chance at a consolation prize all season.
Prediction: Washington 31 Cal 20