On Saturday, the Cal Golden Bears will take on the Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium in both teams' first Pac-12 conference game.
Washington comes off a tough loss at No. 11 Nebraska while Cal comes into the game 3-0 with wins over Fresno State, Colorado (not considered a conference game) and FCS Presbyterian.
This game is significant for both teams considering they both face exceedingly difficult schedules going forward. Thus, this game could end up being the deciding factor in whether or not Cal or Washington becomes bowl eligible come December.
Here are five keys to the game for Cal if they expect to win on Saturday.
A consensus late first-round to early second-round pick come the 2012 NFL draft, Chris Polk is one of college football's elite running backs. A physical power back, Polk thrives on breaking through tackles and powering through defenders. Polk doesn't possess breakaway speed, but he makes up for it by rarely fumbling the ball and running hard every play.
Against an elite Nebraska defense, Polk ran 22 times for 130 yards and one TD. You might be wondering "how the hell is Cal supposed to hold Polk to less than 100 yards if Polk ran for 130 against No. 11 Nebraska?"
Cal's impressive tandem of inside linebackers D.J Holt and Mychal Kendricks need to have a great game and shut down Polk at the line of scrimmage if Cal's going to be successful in this game.
Washington QB Keith Price has had a great season thus far. Having completed 56-of-87 passes (Stanford star Andrew Luck completed 57-of-85) for 11 TDs and three interceptions, Price has shown he can throw the ball effectively.
How do you stop an effective quarterback? You pressure and deliver punishing hits so frequently that a voice starts ringing in his head telling him to get rid of the football before he actually needs to (sometimes leading to interceptions and more frequently incompletions).
Cal's defense will need to blitz early and often if they want to slow down Washington's offense.
Washington brings an impressive arsenal of receivers into this game. Most recognize Jermaine Kearse as being the star receiver of the bunch. Although he is a great receiver, if one glanced at the other receiver's stats thus far this season, he or she would recognize that all of Washington's receivers have had great production.
As expected, Kearse has been the most productive wideout with eight receptions for 107 yards and four TDs, but James Johnson, Devin Aguilar, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams have a combined for 33 receptions, 596 yards and six TDs.
It's not enough to just shut down Kearse. Cal's veteran secondary will have to shut down Washington's receivers if Cal expects to win.
Washington's defense has not been impressive so far. The Huskies have allowed an average of 452 yards per game (108th out of 120 FBS teams) and have given up an average of 36.7 points per game (tied for 107th in FBS.)
If Cal's running game can be as productive as it's been in its past few outings, the Bears should have no problem putting points onto the board and tiring Washington's already lethargic defense.
There's no question that Cal QB Maynard has been good so far. His ability to forget the past and live in the moment is amazing and imperative for any successful quarterback.
Maynard has had his flaws, however. He tends to be inaccurate and also has a tendency of forcing balls into double coverage. He hasn't paid for it thus far, but I have a feeling if he continues throwing ill-advised passes against Washington, he will.
I'm not in any way saying Maynard needs to throw for 400 yards and three TDs, I'm just saying he needs to be smart with the football and lead his offense down the field effectively. He's completely capable of it too, considering he has two of the best receivers in the nation (Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen) and an elite tight end in Anthony Miller.
There's no reason why Cal can't blow out Washington's defense and put 40-plus points on the board.
This game has shootout potential. Both offenses have their fair share of weapons, but I think it'll come down to which defense can hold the opposing offense more successfully.
Cal wins 34-27