Now it's time to gear up for conference play, and first on the schedule is the California Golden Bears, who've been anything but golden over the past 25 years versus the Huskies. Cal will enter Husky Stadium on Saturday carrying a 19-game losing to the team from Seattle, a streak which spans all the way back to 1977.
This afternoon at his weekly press conference, Husky Head Coach Rick Neuheisel, who suffered a deep bruise in his quadricep, also will return expressed plenty of excitement for the upcoming Pacific-10 opener against the formidable opponents from Berkeley, Calif.
"Every year this conference begins as a big-time horse race, and I think this year is an exclamation point on that because I believe every team has a chance to make a lot of noise in this conference race," Neuheisel said. "Certainly our opening opponent in California is indicative of that. I think prognosticators had them as a bottom-tier team and I think they've shocked everybody, although I don't know if they've shocked the other coaching staffs in the league because we all know what a fine coach Jeff Tedford is and all the great things that he did at Oregon as a coordinator."
"It's not a surprise to us that they are off to such a good start," he continued. "They could very easily be 5-0. They are not, but you don't have to stretch your imagination very far to see how they could have won the game against Air Force, and they certainly had a number of good things going for them before Jason Gesser caught fire this last week (against Washington State)."
The Golden Bears opened the eyes of college football fans everywhere when they opened the season with a 70-point outburst versus Baylor. People wondered if it was a fluke. Then Cal answered with a 34-point showing against New Mexico State to coast to victory, and a convincing 46-22 thrashing of Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. New Head Coach Jeff Tedford and his Golden Bears were the talk of the football world. But over the past two weeks, the ball hasn't bounced their way. Back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Air Force and Washington State have Tedford's troops chompin' at the bit for a return to the win column.
At 3-2, Cal brings in a group of experienced players who seem to have come into their own under the new coaching style and methodology of Coach Tedford. Quarterback Kyle Boller has finally become the player that everyone thought he'd be when he came out of high school, and the intricate offensive schemes make Cal a team that's tough to prepare for.
"It's going to be a very competitive game," Neuheisel said. "Our kids I believe are anxious for a Pac-10 matchup. We've had very close games with Cal over the last three years, and we better get ready to play. We are looking forward to a great game, and hopefully we'll get off to a good start in Pac-10 play."
Boller in particular has Neuheisel concerned. In years past, a younger and less mature Boller made a plethora of poor decisions. He was in a system that didn't suit his style of play, and he struggled to consistently complete passes. This year he's been given full reign to take charge and as a result the senior gun-slinger has developed a boat-load of confidence.
"I see a quarterback playing with a lot of confidence," said Neuheisel of the Cal quarterback. "I've always been a big fan of Kyle Boller. I tried to recruit him myself. I had a number of telephone conversations with him when he was a high school senior. I talked to him after each of the games that we played with him. I'm happy that he's having so much success because he is a wonderful young man, I'm just hopeful that he doesn't go crazy against us. He's playing with great confidence, and you can see that whoever has been involved with his coaching has done a good job with him because he's playing like everyone has envisioned him to play."
Luckily for Washington, they are a team that is nearly at full health, which is as much as any coach can ask for entering conference play. Offensive guard Elliott Zajac will return this week for his first time of the season. How much he will play has yet to be determined. Fellow guard Aaron Butler, who suffered a deep bruise in his quadricep, also will return, Neuheisel said. Reggie Williams, who banged up his knee on a play near the goal line on Saturday, is also a go according to the head coach. Neuheisel said that both should be at full-speed by Wednesday's practice.
The addition of Zajac, the lone senior on either front line, will create more competition for an offensive unit that has become used to one another over the past four weeks. As to how the starting lineup will shake out, this is what Neuheisel had to say.
"We just have to wait and see until Elliott does," he said. "Ideally, when Elliott is fine, we will have him back at the strong guard and might have Dan Dicks and Aaron Butler competing at the weak guard."
To this point, Butler has been the weak guard and Dicks, a redshirt sophomore, has had his first four starts of his career at strong guard. Any way you look at it, Zajac's return means good things for the purple and gold.
Having Reggie Williams back at full-health is also quite a (what's another word for "break") - how about "fortunate occurrence" - for Washington, and in particular, the red-hot Cody Pickett. Pickett has thrown for over 300 yards in every game, including marks that exceeded the 400-yard mark each of the past two weeks. Having Reggie back out there against a Cal team that gave up over 400 yards through the air to Jason Gesser and company last week may ensure another torching of the secondary via Pickett's right arm.
Neuheisel is very pleased with what Pickett has done thus far in 2002.
"I like the way he's letting the game come to him," said Neuheisel of his junior quarterback from Idaho. "There was a question after the game on Saturday of why we didn't throw the ball down the field. We called a few, we just are not necessarily going to take them. He's finding his guys."
With the streak of 19 firmly implanted in everyone's minds, Neuheisel knows that it can be both good and bad heading into Saturday. On one end, it can serve as a motivational device, but the Husky head coach also is well aware that his team cannot rely on the past to pull out a win during this go-around.
"It's always talked about because it's such a popular subject for news print," Neuheisel said. "People write about it and go back over the different things that have happened. What we have to do is prepare to play this particular Cal team. We don't get any of the points from the years previous. We don't pretend to know why or how all that happened. We just are anxious to play this Saturday at Husky Stadium and I know that Jeff (Tedford) will have his team ready to play."
Of his primary concerns, Neuheisel lists Cal's knack for a quick-start as numero uno.
"I think that we have to understand that this is a fast starting team," he said. "One of the things that stands out about their team is how quickly they get out of the chutes. They've out-scored their opponents 121-22 in the first half, which is a remarkable statistic. This is a fast-starting team, it means that they are well prepared, and hopefully we'll be well prepared as well."
"I've been relatively pleased with the way we've played coming out of the box over the past two weeks. We fumbled in our opening drive this past week against Idaho, but other than that I thought we've played a decent first half. The bottom line is that we need to start fast and we need to understand that we need to play four complete quarters of football, without any perceived or actual letdowns."
Other factors have the Husky head coach attention as well.
"I think any time you are facing a team with a lot of confidence that is a nervous assignment," he said. "They have put up numbers. They don't turn the ball over, they are plus 11, I think fifth in the country in turnover ratio. You have to get them off the field. We're improving in that regards. I don't think Idaho had a third down conversion until somewhere in the middle of the third quarter. We've also got to do a better job of getting into the endzone. I see that we are first in offense and seventh in scoring offense, so we've squandered lots of opportunities. Those are the kind of things that we are going to try to continue to address. Facing a Jeff Tedford offense you've really got to pick your spots because you are going to get home very often when you blitz. Really it comes down to stopping the running game, then covering."
"Their protection schemes are good. They've got kind of a half-rollout that makes it very tough to get home. They've got down-field throws. The big-armed quarterbacks that Oregon has had over the years, Kyle Boller fits perfectly into that system. You've got to pick your spots as to when you are going to try to get there."
Will the streak of Husky dominance continue? Saturday is only five days away.
Neuheisel's Monday Press Conference 9/30/02
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