KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal vs. Washington

How do the 4-1 Bears match up with visiting Washington and former Cal commit Shaq Thompson? We take an early look at just what Cal has to do to come away with its fifth win of the season on Saturday.

1. Air it out. Air it all out. Think California is bad in pass defense? Well, meet Washington. They are 105th or worse in passing completions allowed per game (22.60; 105th), passing first downs allowed (12.8 per game; 109th), passing touchdowns allowed (2.4 per game; 115th) and passing yards allowed (268.80 per game; 105th).

Jared Goff is third in the nation in passer efficiency (197.9), Cal is 28th in completion percentage, third in passing offense and 11th in total offense.

[READ MORE: Goff, Davis Earn National Honors]

The Huskies are 94th in the nation in total offense (last in the Pac-12), eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and 44th in the nation in offensive explosiveness. Cal is a quick-strike attack both in the air and on the ground, ranking second in the nation in explosiveness and fourth in passing S&P (essentially the equivalent to baseball’s OPS stat – on-base plus slugging).

What makes the passing game so crucial for the Bears is the fact that Washington is stout against the run, ranking fourth in the conference in rush defense, thanks in part to a linebacking corps bolstered by linebacker/safety – and one-time Cal commit -- Shaq Thompson.

Thompson’s flex position has allowed him to amass 35 total tackles – 15th in the Pac-12 – and he leads the league with three forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered.

The more times the Bears can force Thompson and the rest of the Washington defense into coverage, the better.

2. Get off to a fast start, force the Huskies to throw. Yes, for the moment, the Bears are first in the Pac-12 North, but their first four Football Bowl Subdivision opponents are a combined 12-10 to start the season. The next seven foes are a combined 26-9, and that includes the Huskies, which are 4-1 overall, with their only loss coming at the hands of No. 25 Stanford in a 20-13 affair on Sept. 27.

The road ahead for Cal is a rough one, but five of the final seven games of the season are home affairs for the Bears. The home crowd at California Memorial Stadium is Cal’s best weapon. Getting them into the game early will help drive both the offense and the defense. That home crowd is one reason why the betting line for the game opened at Washington -2.5, and has moved already to Cal -3.5.

The Bears have played the 22nd, 47th, 60th and 75th ranked defenses already, and the Huskies are No. 88. As we’ve seen the past three weeks, with this Cal defense, every possession matters, and though the offense can score points seemingly at will, arm talent of Cyler Miles -- the heir apparent to Keith Price -- does pose a concern for a secondary that, last week, played just one player who was older than a redshirt sophomore.

“We just played the No. 1 passing team in the country, and they put up a lot of yards against us, and you’ve got to keep it all in perspective,” said head coach Sonny Dykes, whose defense is last in the Pac-12 in total defense and scoring defense, but is doing quite well against the run, allowing a paltry 117.0 yards per game.

But, even when taking the 25 carries and 78 rushing yards against the Cougars into account, the Bears have also held run-first Arizona to just 107 yards on 32 carries, and Big Ten offense Northwestern to 108 yards on 36 carries, so this run defense definitely has the appearance of being the real deal.

If the Bears can get ahead, they can force the Huskies to go to their passing game, which is far weaker than their run game. This season, Washington has rushed for 1,038 yards on 242 attempts, averaging 207.6 yards per game on the ground, while throwing the ball 129 times for 1,851 yards.

If Cal can hold the front on the run, get ahead quickly and force the talented – yet inexperienced – Miles to throw, that run defense could be the biggest factor on Saturday.

But, the question must be asked: Do the Bears really want to face more passing? They’ve have allowed 1,709 passing yards over the past three games, after all.

“We certainly have to get better,” Dykes said. “It was a very big challenge for us, especially how the game played out, where we had four drives in the third quarter that were under a minute, that were scoring drives, and as a result, we were out there a lot, playing a lot of snaps. They threw for a lot of yards. [It was] kind of what we expected in some ways, in terms of the game. We knew they were going to throw, and they came out throwing. We knew they would have some success, but we felt like, if we could make enough plays down the stretch, we could have a chance to win, and we did. We won, but we’ve certainly got to get better. We played a lot of young guys and players who haven’t practiced much that were coming off of injuries. We didn’t have some pretty key players in Stef (Stefan McClure) and Avery [Sebastian] not playing. We’ve just got to get them better. We’ve got to keep working and continue to build some depth, get the newcomers and young guys ready to play.”

Here’s the clincher for a very tired defense: Cal has played nearly as many defensive snaps in the past three weeks (311) than Washington has offensive snaps all season (371).

3. Be disciplined, take advantage of opportunities, don’t shoot yourself in the foot and execute. In short: Be mature. The Bears are 117th of 123 FBS teams in penalty yards per game (80.00), 113th in total penalty yards (401) and 115th in penalties per game (9.2). Last week, Cal was penalized eight times for a total of 34 yards – a relatively light day. Can they tamp down on the unforced false starts (2) and pass interference calls (2, 1 declined) from last week? That’s going to be crucial, especially because Washington can and will beat itself, given the opportunity.

The Huskies are 109th in the nation in first downs allowed by penalty and 98th in penalties per game.

Now, for some situational stats. Cal is 17th in the nation in fourth-down conversion, going 6-for-8 over the first five games. The Huskies are 120th in fourth-down defense, allowing eight successful conversions in nine opportunities.

Washington is, however, 34th in the nation in third-down defense (32.9%). The Bears, though, are ninth in third-down conversion percentage (50.7%).

Most important of all of these stats, though, is red zone efficiency. The Huskies are tied for 67th in FBS in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score 83.3% of the time. After going 31-for-43 (72%) last year in the red zone, scoring touchdowns just 49% of the time, Cal is tied for 10th in the nation in red zone offense, converting 14 touchdowns and six field goals for a 95.2% efficiency rating. Third-down conversion and red zone efficiency are both hallmarks of a mature offense and a mature team. Despite defensive struggles, the Bears are tied for 42nd in FBS in red zone defense, while Washington is tied for first, scoring 11 touchdowns and five field goals on 19 trips to the end zone. Yes, you read that right: Cal has more red zone conversions than the Huskies have red zone trips.


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