Washington-California Preview: UW Looks To End Season On Winning Note

Todd WilliamsCorrespondent IDecember 2, 2009

SEATTLE - OCTOBER 24:  James Johnson #3 of the Washington Huskies carries the ball during the game against the Oregon Ducks on October 24, 2009 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington. The Ducks defeated the Huskies 43-19. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Saturday marks the end of the first season of the Steve Sarkisian Era. It has been a roller coaster season that had Washington fans feeling like they could beat anyone, following the USC win, and felt the team was just like last year after a disappointing loss to Arizona State at the last second.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. While the strong beginning may have raised expectations for the rebuilding effort, made us feel like we were ready to be back, the long season proved there is still much growing to be done for this young team.

There have been a lot of positives for the season; Jake Locker's increased throwing accuracy, Chris Polk breaking the 1000-yard mark, and the defense playing well in the red zone. The negatives are obvious too; trouble converting touchdowns in the red zone, and obviously the seven losses were more than Husky Fans had hoped for.

The difference between a win and a loss has been much closer this year than in the past few years. It shows a young team, with a young coaching staff, going through growing pains. While the Huskies had a chance to make a bowl this year, as was their goal, they fell short.

It would only be one win, but there is a world of difference between 4-8 and 5-7 in my opinion.

Four and eight would be an improvement, no doubt, but it would also put us right back to where we were when Ty was starting out as the coach, at four wins. Sarkisian needs to be an improvement to Ty, and I already feel he is, but he could make a big statement by rallying this team together for one last win.

At five wins there is more optimism in the offseason, heck only one win away from bowl eligibility. It slipped away, but it was within reach. At four wins it still feels so far away. This year there hasn’t been a major injury to Locker or Polk to blame either.

The 19th ranked California Golden Bears, however, are not just going to lie down and give the Huskies a feel good story for the offseason. At 8-3, a bowl game is assured. After a win over Stanford, Cal is still striving for a ten-win season. Let’s take a look at how the two teams match up.

Washington enters this game with the 3rd best passing offense in the conference at 232 yards a game. They are led by junior quarterback Jake Locker, who has 2552 yards through the air at a 56.7 percent completion rate. Locker has tossed 18 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his first year in a pro-style offense, as well as inexperience.

Jake looked good against WSU, but Cal’s defense is stronger. He will need his young wide receiving core led by Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, and James Johnson to step up. Tight end Kavario Middleton and running back Chris Polk also are productive in the passing offense.

The Husky passing attack will be going up against one of the worst pass defenses in the Pac-10. At number nine in the conference, Cal has struggled to stop the pass all year, giving up 258 yards a game through the air.

That is more than the Huskies average through the air a game. The issue isn't so much talent in the defensive backfield, but rather the tendancy to play zone coverage that gives up large numbers.This will be a key match up if the Huskies want to pull off the upset, as Locker and the Husky offense need to find soft spots in that zone.

California brings the 4th best passing offense in the conference to Seattle. Led by quarterback Kevin Riley, the Bears put up 224 yards a game through the air. Riley has thrown 16 touchdowns to six interceptions, for a total of 2421 yards.

The Bears spread the ball around a bit with Marvin Jones, Verran, Tucker, Jeremy Ross, Anthony Miller, and Jahvid Best all having over 20 catches on the year, with Jones leading with 32 catches and six touchdowns. With Best being out until the bowl game, back up running back Shane Vereen has taken over Best’s role in the run game as well as the passing game, catching 19 passes for two touchdowns.

Washington comes into this game with a porous pass defense as well, at 7th in the conference, giving up 243 yards a game on the ground. The Huskies have an incredibly young secondary, and have had trouble getting any pressure on the run all season. Look for Cal to try to take advantage of this, even though they are a run-first team.

Chris Polk is the first freshman to rush for over 1000 yards in Washington’s history, and he powers the 7th best rushing attack in the conference for the Dawgs. While that does not sound impressive, Polk has been a strong force on the ground, averaging 92 yards a game. Washington is a pass-first team this year, but given the opportunity Polk has provided balance to the offense, and is a tough physical runner who takes more than one tackler to take down.

California brings to Seattle the 4th best rushing defense in the conference, giving up only 111 yards a game on the ground. Cal knows that Washington is going to be looking for the pass first, but also is aware of Polk's ability to break runs on the ground. While they are more successful defending the run than the pass, they will need to provide enough pressure on the run game to make Washington one dimensional, so they can focus on getting to Locker and forcing him into bad decisions.

The Golden Bears are a run-first team, and it is reflected in the stats. They are the third-ranked team in the conference at 184 yards a ground on the game. For most of the season they were lead by dynamic back Jahvid Best, but he is still healing from a horrific fall in a game.

Best will be able to play by a bowl, but is officially out for this game. Sophomore Shane Vereen has stepped in and performed well in Best’s absence. In the last two games with increased carries Vereen has 352 yards. He had 738 rushing yards on the season and averages 5.0 yards a carry.

Matching up against Vereen and the powerful Bears running attack is Washington and its 9th, in conference, ranked rush defense. Washington has not looked great statistically on the ground, giving up 155 yards a game, but like the pass defense has been stronger in the red zones than in years past.

The Bears are a run first team so this will be a huge match up in the game. The Huskies need to be able to contain Vereen if they want a shot at pulling off the upset. They need to watch for Vereen's ability to run out of the Wildcat formation, as well as out of traditional running formations.

On special teams California ranks highly in punt returns at 3rd in the conference with 12 yards an attempt, but poorly on kickoff returns, coming in only 7th in the Pac-10 at 20 yards a try. The Bears are also a solid punting team ranking 3rd in the conference at 37 yards a punt.

Washington comes into the final contest fairly average at punt returns, at 6th in the conference at eight yards a return. The Huskies, however, come in dead last in the conference at kickoff returns with only 18 yards per return. As far as punting goes Washington does average at 6th in the conference at 36 yards a punt.

California has a distinct advantage in the turnover margin at .73 to Washington’s .18.

Washington wins the game if they are able to attack with a balanced offense. Polk needs to be used as a constant threat, and it would not hurt to have Locker at least show he is a threat on a roll out or two, just to make the defense think about him if nothing else. UW has a strong passing attack as well, but the key will be for them to have balance and not put the game entirely on Locker.

On the defensive side of the ball they need to keep Cal out of the end zone. This does not look to be a defensive battle, so if Washington wants to win this game they just need to put themselves in position to strike last. That means holding Cal to a field goal or two instead of touchdowns when they get in the red zone.

California wins the game if establish a strong running game on offense, and use the pass to keep the defense from stacking the box. Riley can have a field day against the UW secondary if given time, and Vereen has proven to be a solid fill in for Best. On defense Cal needs to get pressure on Locker and force him into bad throws. Washington should look to establish the run, but it will live and die by the pass late in the game. California needs to rattle Locker.

If Washington manages to win the game it will be an upset, but it is one Washington is capable of pulling off. California knows they are playing in a bowl already, and are out of the Pac-10 title hunt. Will they overlook Washington?

Washington 28, California 24


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