For this week's Q-and-A with the opposing team's beat writer, we turn to Mike Vernon, who is in his first year covering California for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was kind enough to answer five questions for us about Saturday's matchup.
1. In what area has California most improved since its 1-11 finish in 2013? And how important has health been this season?
Vernon: "This is hard for me to say because I wasn’t here last year. But really, I think Cal’s ability to finish off drives has been the biggest reason for its success this year. The Bears’ red zone offense ranked 107th in the country last year. They averaged 453 yards of offense but only 23 points per game last year. That’s a staggering inability to score.
"Sonny Dykes’ offense seems to rely on timing and that comes with more and more reps. Quarterback Jared Goff has got the timing part down this year, and he’s throwing to some great receivers. The offense has basically been unstoppable. They average 50 points per game right now.
"And health has been a major factor. Last year Cal’s best two defensive linemen, Brennan Scarlett and Mustafa Jalil were hurt. They’ve stayed healthy this year, and Cal has been OK at stopping the run. The offensive line has stayed healthy, and that allows Goff to have the timing and confidence to make some ridiculous throws right now.
"And it’s impacted the running game, too ..."
2. How important is Cal's running game to its offensive success?
Vernon: "Glad you asked. Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin have said they’d prefer to run it more than throw the ball if they could. The emergence of Daniel Lasco at running back almost runs parallel to Cal’s offense explosion. He’s a strong, physical runner that gives Cal the option of handing it off on third and short. Dykes said he didn’t have the confidence to do that last year.
"Being able to run the ball in an offense like this is crucial, particularly late in games. The coaching staff took a lot of heat for not slowing the game down enough in the second half against Arizona."
3. What's the vibe around the program right now? Are they mostly just happy to be winning, or is there palpable concern about how bad their defense has been?
Vernon: "The team is happy to be winning. In fact, they’ve almost been naïve about it. While Cal is a Hail Mary away from being 5-0, they’re also a few yards shy of being 2-3.
"But hey, when you go 1-11 and start the next year, 4-1, you don’t care how it happens. They’re a confident bunch at the moment, even ordering shirts that say #Drop50."
4. What are Jared Goff's biggest strengths and weaknesses as a passer?
Vernon: "Jared has the physical tools you want from a passer. He’s accurate and can throw the long ball. He’s just mobile enough to escape pressure. And now he’s got the timing part of the offense down as well.
"I would say he’s been inconsistent making some of the easier throws in games. He’s still a sophomore and makes some youth-related mistakes. If a defense is getting pressure on him, watch for some bad throws.
"That being said, two of his three interceptions bounced off the hands of his receivers. Only one was really his fault. He’s thrown 22 touchdowns to those three interceptions.
"Those numbers are ridiculous. Washington must get pressure on him early to mess with his rhythm, otherwise it could be a long day for the Huskies’ secondary."
5. What are the biggest challenges a team like Washington presents?
Vernon: "Washington’s defense should be better and more talented than Washington State’s or Colorado’s bunch. How will the Bears handle not being able to score at will?
"Also, Washington can run the ball, thus slowing down the game. Cal wants to go fast.
"Finally, the Huskies present a more physical test. The should be able to challenge Cal up front more than any Pac-12 opponent they’ve played."
BONUS: How fun was it wiping out a "Cal gets big win at Arizona" lead and completely re-writing your game story on deadline? And then wiping out a "Cal loses on last-second field goal" lead a few minutes before midnight? And where did you eat in Pullman last week?
Vernon: "Arizona was so brutal, man. The game kicked off at 7:00 p.m., so that’s a bad start. I had my story ready to go when Cal was up 31-14 in the fourth quarter. Then Cal scored 14 more points and STILL LOST. It was insane. I’d never experienced anything like it.
"Fortunately, Washington State had so much craziness throughout the game that I was covered for the missed field goal. Just tacked on some grafs up top and flipped around some records, and I was good to go.
"I’m ashamed to say I didn’t eat in Pullman. We stayed in Spokane for as long as possible watching Stanford-Notre Dame, Ole Miss-Bama and Kansas-West Virginia. Yes, I’m a sucker and still wanted to keep tabs on the Jayhawks."