Friday, October 20, 2006

GAME 8 - WASHINGTON at CALIFORNIA

What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago Washington was flying high over a genuine moral victory, having slugged USC to a near standstill in the Coliseum. They stood at 4-2 with respectable road losses to the Trojans and Oklahoma. The message boards were abuzz with projections of Washington running the table and sneaking into the Rose Bowl if SC went to the NCG. Most posters pointed to October 21, and California, as the one genuine upset the Dawgs had to have for them to reclaim their rightful place in Pasadena.

And then, Husky QB Isaiah Stanback's ended his college career by injuring his Lisfrac joint (?) in the 4th quarter of a 27-17 loss to Oregon State. We see this type of situation every year - a fourth-year contributor goes down and *poof* goes the career. In the case of Stanback, it's disappointing for more than Husky fans. After a couple of years of controversy and grumbling that Stanback was better suited as a receiver, the kid had put it together in 2006. Before the injury Isaiah had thrown for 1,325 yards, run for 350, and thrown or run for 14 scores. The proverbial lightbulb had gone off - he now could sense the weakside rush and make sound decisions about when to run or throw. His long-stated dreams of playing QB at the next level seemed, for the first time, to be possible. Then this happens. I still hope he makes it, because he seems like a good kid who got stuck in a football program that's only now emerging from dysfunction.

So the conventional wisdom goes that sans Stanback, the Huskies are overmatched against the Golden Bears. And the conventional wisdom is right. Cal should win this game by a comfortable margin. But as with everything in life, details matter, so let's go to the matchups.

When California has the ball....they will hopefully look a lot better than last week. This is a bounce-back game for Nate Longshore, who just looked awful at times against Wazzu. Under the weather? Probably, and I expect he'll bounce back nicely on Saturday. The Huskies have occasionally struggled with teams who stretch the field in the passing game. We know they're well coached, with ex-Cal DB coach J.D. Williams leading the unit. But last week they didn't tackle well and gave up three long passes for scores. Against a Matt Moore-quarterbacked team, no less. Not good.

But the Huskies do some good things going on the D - starting with one of their best defenders, Scott White. White is an athletic outside backer who is excellent in his pass drops and merely good in run support - he has been a little banged up this year but had a nice game with two picks against the Beavers. Coordinator Kent Baer, who has followed Willingham from Palo Alto through South Bend, has historically favored simple and somewhat conservative schemes. This year, he has occasionally let his hair down, with great effect. Against Arizona, who admittedly can't block anyone, Baer blitzed liberally and Washington sacked the Cats six times. Against SC they brought lots of pressure in the 2nd half and Booty struggled to find his hot receiver.

The Huskies start nine upperclassmen on defense; other notables include Tahj Bomar, an undersized but quick middle backer, DT Donny Mateaki, and DE Greyson Gunheim, who provides some quickness off the edge. C.J. Wallace is a very good tackler in run support from the safety position, but can get a little lost in zone coverage. Their best corner is Dashon Goldson, but he's coming off a high-ankle sprain and bears close attention Saturday.

Overall, UW has an athletic defense, with pretty good perimeter speed (a step behind Oregon, but quicker than most). The key to Cal's game plan will be power. I'm guessing Tedford will want to see early on whether his interior line can handle Mateaki and linemate Wilson Afoa within the two-back power set. I'm betting they will, allowing Longshore to throw off play action and stretch the Husky secondary. From the Husky side, I anticipate Baer's defense will attack as they did in the 2nd half against SC. A blitzing defense plus quick hitting run plays could equal some breakaways for Lynch and Forsett.

The key for Washington will be pressure on Longshore. They need a low-scoring game to compete, and Longshore looked very uncomfortable against a strong Cougar pass rush in Pullman. They must also tackle like they did against SC to prevent Jackson, Lynch and Hawkins from getting second and third chances at the end zone. A tall order.

When Washington has the ball...well, who knows what they'll do? Stanback was in some ways, the conference's MVP - everything UW did well flowed from his athleticism and decision-making. Junior Carl Bonnell, who will get the start in Berkeley, is actually cut from Stanback's cloth - a very mobile QB who lacks the breakaway speed of his injured colleague. He has game experience (including a bloodbath at Notre Dame), and I expect he'll play pretty well. But he's not Stanback. My read of UW is that they could afford to be a little vanilla on offense - safe routes, establish the run, etc - because they had the conference's best third down play: Isaiah drops back and runs by people for a first down. Bonnell is mobile, but he's not a gifted runner like Stanback, and this presents a quandary for Ty. I'm sure he'd love to establish the run with Kenny James and his veteran O-Line, but I don't see this happening. Failing that, he will have to squeeze consistency and the occasional big play out of a QB who has thrown 14 passes this year.

As mentioned, the O-Line is veteran and, with the exception of last week's game, has protected the passer very well. The starting five have noone - and I mean noone - behind them, leaving them very vulnerable should one or more starters go down. Their skill people are OK - Kenny James has a nice burst but doesn't get the ball as much as he probably should (only 82 times so far this year). Louis Rankin is the other option out of the backfield. Receivers are, frankly, non-descript. Sonny Shackelford is a possession-type guy; Marcel Reese is a juco with probably the quickest burst on the team but only six catches on the year.

In my view, this game really isn't about Bonnell - UW's game plan falls on five sets of shoulders - their offensive line. They must get a consistent push on Cal's front four in the run game, and they must protect Bonnell so he can establish some sort of rhythm early on. And, they must stay healthy through four quarters. Washington doesn't have the perimeter speed to stretch Cal out and force a reliance on the zone, so they'll have to do do their early damage between the tackles.

I expect a relatively conservative game from DC Bob Gregory with lots of different looks (as always) but relatively little risk-taking. This will change if the Huskies establish any sort of momentum in the run game.

Special Teams...both teams have good punters, which matters more to the Huskies than to Cal (given the Bears' ability to turn the big play). Sean Douglas kicks a good number of fair catches, which will obviously be critical to prevent Udub's from being immortalized in the 2007 DeSean Jackson Heisman candidate video. Michael Braunstein, the UW kicker, has missed a couple of makeable kicks and is only 5-7 on the year.

Intangibles...for those Huskies who think Cal is looking ahead to USC, forget it. Tedford is more than a little upset over Cal's dismal offensive play in the WSU game and led a "spirited" week of practice leading up to Saturday. Cal will be ready to play.

For UW - who knows? A younger team could go into the tank after Stanback's injury. But this is a veteran team, so chances are they'll come out firing and mix in the requisite trick plays, fake field goals, etc. It won't matter. To belive Washington will win this game, you have to believe that they will control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball; that Kenny James will rush for 100+ yards; that Bonnell won't turn the ball over; and that they can prevent any 40+ yard plays by the Bears. Oh, and probably a defensive score, too. Too much to ask for, even from a much-improved Husky team that appears headed in the right direction.

Prediction...California 37, Washington 13

Didn't score last week. He's due

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