California (3-0, 0-0 in Pac-12) at Washington (2-1, 0-0 in Pac-12)
2 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
The line: California by 3
TV: Pac-12 Networks
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If three-game sample sizes mean anything, this appears to be a strength vs. strength kind of matchup.
The Huskies, despite losing four players to the NFL, have looked mostly sharp defensively, and they rank eighth nationally in yards-per-play allowed -- just 3.88, a figure that leads the Pac-12.
California, meanwhile, ranks ninth nationally in offensive yards per play, averaging 7.44 on 227 snaps (if you’re curious, the Golden Bears averaged 7.0 yards per play in their 45-44 victory over Texas last week).
So, something has to give there. And that’s what strikes me most about this game: California’s offense is impressive, and led by a quarterback (Jared Goff) who a lot of people think will be a top-5 pick in this year’s NFL draft. You’ve likely read all of the nice things UW coach Chris Petersen had to say about him earlier this week. I don’t think any of that was lip service. Goff is the real deal, and with playmakers around him like receiver Kenny Lawler, he can really make things go.
But ... just as the Huskies haven’t played an offense as good as California’s -- Boise State ranks 88th in yards per play, Utah State ranks 126th, and Sacramento State plays in the Big Sky -- the Golden Bears haven’t played a defense as good as Washington’s, either. And California’s defense is still suspect enough that I expect a pretty competitive game at Husky Stadium on Saturday.
Cal allowed Texas to gain 650 yards of total offense -- 7.8 yards per play -- and nearly blew a 45-24 lead going into the fourth quarter. Any win in Austin is impressive, but Cal has to be concerned about that yardage total. Defense has been the Bears’ biggest issue since Sonny Dykes took over as head coach in 2013, and while Cal is healthier on that side of the ball this season than it was when the Huskies won 31-7 at Memorial Stadium last year, that Texas game makes me think there are plenty of yards and points to be had for Jake Browning and UW’s suddenly-promising offense.
To me, the key for the Huskies will be similar to what it was a year ago -- get consistent pressure on Goff from the defensive front four, and allow UW’s defensive backs and linebackers to help in coverage and against the run. Kevin King has three interceptions in three games as UW’s nickelback. Combine that fact with how talented Goff is at climbing the pocket and finding open receivers against any coverage, I’d imagine we’ll see the Huskies in nickel quite a bit (and if Budda Baker can’t play, expect some combination of Jojo McIntosh, Ezekiel Turner and Brandon Beaver to fill in). But if they can’t generate a consistent pass rush -- Cal has allowed four sacks in three games, so their offensive line has held up decently well -- it won’t matter how many defensive backs the Huskies put on the field. Goff is good enough to make any defense pay if he’s given time to throw.
I don’t know that this was a game I would have picked the Huskies to win two weeks ago. But they’ve shown enough offensive improvement and enough defensive chops to make me believe an upset is possible, especially against a Cal team that still doesn’t appear to play much defense.
The pick: Washington 34, California 31
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple