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Husky Football Blog

The latest news and analysis on the Montlake Dawgs.

November 26, 2010 at 1:44 PM

The pick. …

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UW coach Steve Sarkisian referenced this week a quote of his from August when he talked of how critical the last two games of the season would be.
I’m not sure Sarkisian (pictured against UCLA in a Dean Rutz photo) envisioned at that time, however, that the season would be this completely on the line in its last eight days.
I try not to overstate things too much on here, but I think it’s safe to say these are a pretty critical eight days for Sarkisian’s rebuilding of the UW program. The difference between 6-6 and a bowl game and a chance to get to 7-6, and possibly instead falling to 4-8 (if UW loses to Cal, anything seems possible in the Apple Cup) is mammoth.
The former would quiet the critics, signal recruits that things are on the right track, and allow for a pretty comfortable off-season.
The latter, however, would only further unsettle those who have grown a little restless as UW has turned in a season that some nationally have called among the most disappointing in the country, and put Sarkisian in something of a show-me state heading into his third season (and doing so with a new quarterback).
UW, at least, enters this game with some momentum after the 24-7 win over UCLA last Thursday.
In some dead time after everyone else in the household fell into a turkey coma, I watched the entire UCLA game again last night.
I thought UW did a couple things well that helped lead to the win. On offense, UW got some good edge blocking, sometimes sliding fullback Austin Sylvester over to essentially a TE spot at times, other times using the motion guys to block, all helping to create some of those off-tackle runs. Defensively, UW blitzed a lot on early downs, appearing to do it even more as the game wore on as the Huskies grew confident that the Bruins couldn’t do much against them throwing the ball.
The offensive strategy, which evolved into running on almost every down in the second half, probably won’t work as well against Cal’s 3-4 defense. Despite some pretty memorable flameouts this year, Cal remains statistically one of the best defenses in the conference this year.
In conference games only (and you can find the conference-only stats here on page 36), the Bears lead the Pac-10 in defense, allowing just 332.6 yards per game and 4.8 per play (and that’s obviously having played everyone but UW among Pac-10 teams). That’s a stark contrast to UCLA, now ninth in run defense in Pac-10 games only at 211.1 (and that’s without having played ASU or USC, the latter one of the better running teams in the Pac-10).
So running the ball is going to be harder, and the Huskies are going to have to get plays in the passing game from Jake Locker and a receiving corps that has been sadly inconsistent much of the year. And it’s fair to say that the legacy of Locker can also be altered quite a bit in these last two games. Despite all that has already happened in his career, how different will things look if he can lead UW to wins on the road in his last two games to clinch a bowl bid, all while battling a broken rib?
The defensive strategy of a week ago, however, might work a little better as Cal is now probably the least effective passing team in the conference outside of UCLA since it has to go with backup Brock Mansion at QB instead of injured starter Kevin Riley.
But Cal’s a more diverse running team than UCLA (and I have to admit I wrote most of this before seeing that Arizona State just ran through UCLA like the Bruins were barely there — that kind of negates a little of the optimism of Washington’s win last Thursday since reality is UCLA has been pretty bad most of the year).
Last Thursday, however, it seemed as if once the Huskies figured out where to be against UCLA’s Pistol offense that they matched up well physically enough to put a stop to the run. But Cal is much more creative with its running game and if the Huskies simply call a bunch of run blitzes to stop stuff between the tackles, Cal is more than liable to send the ball outside around the edge.
The real X-factor is Cal’s emotional state. After two straight home losses to Oregon and Stanford, it’s tempting to think the Bears will be empty. On the other hand, Cal hasn’t lost three in a row under Jeff Tedford, and has a bowl game on the line, as well as closing out Memorial Stadium before it’s renovated. That puts a real onus on UW to start fast and immediately test Cal’s emotional temperature. That’s something that as I detailed earlier this week, UW hasn’t done real well this year, leading at the end of the first quarter just once all season (against Oregon State at home).
The oddsmakers have called this a seven-point game in Cal’s favor and I think they’ve got it just about right. I think UW plays hard and tough, but I think Cal is simply a little bit better team. And ultimately, that and the homefield advantage will be enough for the Bears to pull it out, 27-21.

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