Happy as the memories might be, the Washington Huskies do not expect that their game Saturday against California will resemble what happened in Berkeley last season.
The Huskies won that game, 31-7, sparked by Shaq Thompson’s 100-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the first quarter. Cal never recovered.
But there’s a reason the Golden Bears, 3-0 for the first time since 2011, enter Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at Husky Stadium as three-point favorites. Their offense, led by junior quarterback Jared Goff, will be by far the best the Huskies have seen yet in this young season — and likely one of the best they see this year, period.
So, as Huskies offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said, the Huskies approach this matchup with the knowledge that last year was mostly an aberration. If this Cal team does nothing else, it will at least move the ball and score points.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
“We’re counting on getting a four-quarter battle. They are never going to be out of this thing,” Smith said. “Offensively, we’ve got to be effective, because we’re not going to win this game 10-7.”
To that end, this appears to be a strength-on-strength encounter. It’s just that Cal’s strength — its offense — is far more proven. In victories against Grambling State, San Diego State and Texas, the Bears have averaged 7.44 yards per play, a mark that ranks ninth nationally. And in his third year as Cal’s starting quarterback, Goff has a handful of NFL draft analysts projecting him as a potential top-five pick.
The Huskies (2-1), meanwhile, appear stronger defensively than many assumed they would be following the departures of Thompson, Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha and Marcus Peters to the NFL. UW ranks eighth nationally and first in the Pac-12 in yards-per-play allowed (3.88), and is particularly stout against the run, allowing only 2.56 yards per carry.
But none of the Huskies’ first three opponents — Boise State, Sacramento State, Utah State — pose the same kind of challenge as Cal and Goff, who has completed 73.1 percent of his pass attempts for 898 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We haven’t seen anybody throw the ball like this,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “This is what they do, and he’s as good as anybody out there. So we have a humongous challenge, for sure.”
Petersen praised Goff’s ability to use his feet to move the pocket if necessary, eluding oncoming rushers while keeping his eyes trained downfield for open receivers.
Goff, Petersen said, “can throw it down the field 40 yards on his back foot — I mean, on a line.”
Which makes it all the more important for the Huskies to pressure him.
“We have to keep the pocket dirty,” UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate said. “We know that this kid is a very talented player. What we’re looking for are guys who keep the pocket dirty. Don’t let him step into the throws, get our hits on him, and the sacks will come.”
In the larger picture of the Huskies’ season, this game should serve as a barometer of where Petersen’s team stands. A victory would indicate progress greater than many expected before the season — Cal was picked by media to finish third in the Pac-12 North, with UW fourth — and would be an important step toward attaining bowl eligibility.
All of which are things Petersen has no interest in discussing.
“Every week is the same thing — it is no different. It’s about us, and how we improved,” Petersen said. “We may have a better opponent, but it’s still about us. And the next week it’s going to be about us, and the bye week, and then the next opponent we play, it’s always about us.”
California (3-0) at WASHINGTON (2-1)
2 p.m., Husky Stadium, Seattle
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
The series: Washington leads, 53-38-4.
The skinny: So, is Washington’s defense for real? The Huskies will surely find out, one way or another, against a Cal team that already appears to have one of the most dangerous offenses in the Pac-12. The Bears won a close game in Austin last week, 45-44, over Texas. They led 45-24 in the fourth quarter and needed Texas to miss an extra-point with just more than a minute left to hold on. … Impressive as Cal’s offense was against the Longhorns, the Huskies should draw hope from the fact that Texas gained 650 yards against Cal’s still-struggling defense. … Cal running back Daniel Lasco, who rushed for 1,115 yards last season, missed the Texas game and will be a game-time decision on Saturday, according to Bears coach Sonny Dykes. Lasco’s absence allowed Khalfani Muhammad to rush for 164 yards on 10 carries, including a 74-yard touchdown run. Vic Enwere also rushed 16 times for 73 yards. … Cal hasn’t beaten Washington since 2008, and hasn’t won at Husky Stadium since 2005. … As of Thursday, UW had distributed 57,145 tickets for Saturday’s game. Attendance at UW’s first two home games: 55,010 (vs. Sacramento State) and 59,464 (vs. Utah State).
The pick: Washington, 34-31.
Has 14 catches for 182 yards and five touchdowns.
Is Cal’s active career leader in tackles.
Record-setting passer will be best UW sees this season.
Leads team in tackles. Should play despite recent foot injury.
Threw for 368 yards last week, might need similar effort vs. Cal.
His physical presence will be needed up the middle.
Caught five passes for 131 yards last week.
Nickel back has three interceptions in three games.