The popular read on Washington’s Pac-12 Conference game at California on Saturday, say, two months ago, was likely that this is one of the few games on the Huskies’ schedule they should certainly win.
The Golden Bears won one game and lost 11 in 2013, and looked bad doing it. The Huskies easily beat them, 41-17, at Husky Stadium last year.
But Cal (4-1, 2-1 in Pac-12) has looked much better since the start of the 2014 season, winning four of its first five games with the lone loss coming on a successful, last-second Hail Mary by Arizona. The Bears are in first place in the Pac-12 North, qualifying so far as one of the biggest surprises in what has already been a season of upheaval in college football.
The Huskies (4-1, 0-1), meanwhile, enter this game at California Memorial Stadium (3 p.m., Pac-12 Network) facing questions about their inconsistent offense and a young secondary that will have its hands full against the Bears’ balanced, high-scoring attack.
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If UW harbors any hopes of competing for the Pac-12 North title — each team in the division has a loss, so it’s still wide open — this visit to Berkeley can be classified as a “must-win.”
But it’s no longer the “definitely will win” it appeared to be before everyone actually started playing.
“It’s going to be crazy. Nobody’s that much better than anybody,” Huskies linebacker Travis Feeney said of the early Pac-12 results. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day. There’s no easy games in the Pac. Every team’s good.”
Even Cal, now. Second-year coach Sonny Dykes dealt with so many injuries upon his arrival last year — particularly on a defense that struggled to stop anybody — it was hard to truly determine just where the program stood.
The defense is still plenty suspect, as evidenced by the 164 points Cal has allowed in its last three games. But the Bears have unveiled a renewed dedication to running the ball in addition to passing it well in Dykes’ version of the Air Raid offense — Cal calls it the Bear Raid — and started the season with an upset win at Northwestern before throttling Sacramento State.
They were an eyelash from starting the season 3-0, but Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon’s Hail Mary toss found the hands of receiver Austin Hill, and Cal dropped its Pac-12 opener, 49-45.
The Bears rebounded with wild wins over Colorado (59-56 in double overtime) and Washington State (60-59), a three-game stretch so physically taxing that Dykes gave his players extra time off from practice this week.
Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff — he has 22 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, and averages an incredible 10.4 yards per attempt — leads a passing game that averages 398.2 yards a game, good for third nationally. Tailback Daniel Lasco provides a change of pace in the running game, too, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
“They just kind of keep coming at you,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “Then they go fast, and then they kind of keep you on your heels, not getting lined up correctly or fast enough. They execute better than the other side.”
The way things have been going, another harrowing finish might await the Bears and Huskies on Saturday — even if UW’s so-so offense and capable defense prevent it from being as high-scoring as Cal’s last three games.
“There’s so much parity in the league,” Dykes said this week. “Every Saturday’s going to be an adventure. We talk to our players and just said, ‘Hey, look, we expect this Saturday to come down to the last play of the game, just like the last three Saturdays have, and this one won’t be any different.’ ”
That’s a belief that sounds far more reasonable now than it might have in August.
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WASHINGTON (4-1, 0-1 IN PAC-12) AT CALIFORNIA (4-1, 2-1)
3 p.m., California Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, California
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7 FM.
The series: Washington leads, 52-38-4
What to watch: The Huskies’ young secondary is progressing but faces maybe its most difficult test of the season on Saturday against California’s offense. Washington’s defensive backfield — which features two freshman starters, a sophomore and fourth-year junior Marcus Peters — must play far better against Cal than it did on Sept. 6 against Eastern Washington, which scored 52 points behind quarterback Vernon Adams’ 475 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The challenging part, though, is that UW must also prepare for what has so far been a pretty formidable Cal rushing attack, led by running back Daniel Lasco, who has rushed for 408 yards on 66 carries through Cal’s first five games. … Then there’s Washington’s offense. Can the Huskies feast on Cal’s porous defense the same way Arizona, Colorado and Washington State were able to? UW ranks last in the Pac-12 in total offense at 370.2 yards per game, and only 162.6 of those yards come through the air. Cal’s pass defense is the worst in the conference and one of the worst in the country.
TNT pick: Washington, 34-31.
UPS LOGGERS GAMEDAY
PACIFIC (1-2) AT UNIVERSITY OF PUGET SOUND (2-1)
1 p.m. Saturday, Baker Stadium, Tacoma
Series: Pacific leads, 17-14-2. The Boxers have won the past three games, including a 56-14 victory last season. UPS’ last win came in 2010 when a 42-31 win was part of a two-game sweep that season.
What to watch: Everyone by now knows that Loggers coach Jeff Thomas has a penchant for airing it out on offense. The Boxers know this as well as anyone, so they will likely dare the Loggers to run the football. This might be a key spot for freshman running back Noah Frazier (20 carries, 118 yards, TD), out of Long Beach, California. He started the season as the third-string tailback, but injuries have thrust him into a starting role. He is a home-run threat who also will be a sprinter on the men’s track team. UPS rushed for 169 yards last week against Lewis & Clark — the highest game total in the Thomas era. And the fifth-year coach has shown more commitment to the run game in 2014. The Loggers have totaled 318 rushing yards in three games; they ran for 388 total a year ago. … The Boxers will try and run it, too — especially out of three-tight end sets. Bobby Ladiges (278 yards, two TDs), Kamana Pimental (218 yards, three TDs) and Bronson Barretto make up their tailback rotation.
What’s at stake: The last time UPS started 3-1 was 2006 — a year the Loggers went 7-3. It would be a good time to get rolling because the November schedule (PLU, Linfield, Willamette) gets considerably more challenging.
TNT pick: UPS, 30-28.
PLU LUTES GAMEDAY
No. 21 PACIFIC LUTHERAN (2-1) AT LEWIS & CLARK (0-4)
2 p.m. Saturday, Griswold Stadium, Portland
Series: PLU leads, 37-10-1. The Lutes have won the past two meetings, including a 42-21 triumph last season in Puyallup. Lewis & Clark’s last victory was in 2011 — 34-32.
What to watch: The Lutes not only suffered a 41-14 loss to Linfield last weekend, they were also beaten up. And it was many of their offensive standouts, notably quarterback Dalton Ritchey (separated shoulder), running back Niko Madison (shoulder stinger) and wide receivers Kyle Warner (heel bruise) and Ben Welch (hamstring). Add in the fact wide receiver Kellen Westering (hamstring) did not even suit up last week, and PLU had its own M.A.S.H. unit. Coach Scott Westering said his team’s first priority is healing up. The players most in danger of missing the game are Warner, Westering and Welch. That means Ritchey could be throwing to a whole new cast of pass-catchers — Austin Hilliker, Fernando Barrett and Beau Lockmer on the outside, and Juston Lind and Richard Johnson out of the slot. … After four great seasons under all-Northwest Conference quarterback Keith Welch, the Pioneers are in a full-blown rebuilding mode. Dual-threat freshman Cody Rochon (87-of-157, 787 yards, two TDs; 279 rushing yards) should someday be good, but Lewis & Clark is last in total offense (331.8 yards per game) and total defense (428.5).
What’s at stake: The Lutes need to be on the same track they have been the past two seasons — lose to Linfield in the regular season, win the rest of their games and hope for an at-large berth to the NCAA Division IIII playoffs.
TNT pick: PLU, 45-10.