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Cal Football

Washington Preview: Huskies Seem Loaded for Bear

September 5, 2019
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Most teams that lose a four-year starter at quarterback, an all-conference running back and nine starters on defense including three All-Americans, would be in a rebuilding mode.

The Washington Huskies aren’t most teams. With a few down periods interrupting what has been a run of success since the days of the second Eisenhower administration, they have been a West Coast power. Rebuild, shmeebuild. They want to win immediately.

This year is no exception.

Yes, QB Jake Browning, one of the most prolific QBs in UW history, is gone, as is running back Myles Gaskin. One of the better defenses in the country saw all but two starters depart, most to the NFL. 

Still, head coach Chris Petersen has enough talent at his disposal to have his team ranked 12th and 14th respectively in the latest coaches and AP polls. This is what Cal, a two-touchdown underdog,  will be up against Saturday night in Seattle.

 

Let’s start with Browning’s replacement. Jacob Eason (10, above) a Washington native. He began his college career at Georgia where he won the starting job in 2016 as a true freshman, but was injured and never regained the spot. He transferred to UW and this fall beat out Jake Heaner, who thought so little of his prospects that just this week announced he was transferring to Fresno State.

In the Huskies’ victory over Eastern Washington on Saturday, Eason was 27-for-36 passing for 349 yards, 4 touchdowns and -- are you paying attention Chase Garbers? -- no interceptions.

Petersen liked what he saw. “The O-Line did a nice job letting Eason set his feet, and I thought he was really, really good for a first game coming out of the gate,” Petersen said in his press conference this week. “He was really sharp on his reads and got hit a little bit, got knocked down, so that was probably good for him to know he can take a shot.”

Washington Athletics
Chris Petersen (right)

Eason, who stands 6-6 and weighs 228, demonstrated that he can make all the required throws. His arm is accurate and strong, witness as demonstrated by his 50-yard bomb to Andre Baccellini on a fly pattern. It was right on the money.

That offensive line Petersen talked about is one of the nation’s best, althought it might not be quite up to that standard on Saturday. Center Nick Harris, an all-star candidate, was injured against Eastern Washington and replaced by redshirt freshman Matteo Mele, who occasionally had some trouble with his snaps, but otherwise played OK. Petersen said Harris, who did not return to the game after he was hurt but was seen standing on the sidelines is “week to week.” That doesn’t seem as good as “day-to-day” but a heckuva lot better than “month-to-month” and “year-to-year”.

“Matteo did a good job,” Petersen said.  “Matteo’s been getting a lot of reps in practice as well. Nick’s played a lot of snaps for us, so we’ve been able to work (Mele) quite a bit as well. You never know when that day is going to come where the guy’s gotta go, so he got a lot of good reps.”

Besides Harris, the bulwark of the offensive line is senior Trey Adams (6-8, 302) at left tackle. An All-Pac-12 performer in 2016, he missed most of the last two years because of injuries. He seemed to be back in form against Eastern Washington, which is not good news for Cal.  The other three regulars, right guard Jason Kirkland (6-7,320), right tackle Jared Hilbers (6-7, 305) and left guard Luke Wattenberg (6-5, 300) all started a year ago,

While junior Salvan Ahmed was expected to be the prime running back going into the season and even started the game Saturday, his backup Richard Newton wound up with the most rushing yards, 91 on 12 carries (7.6 yards per). The two offer contrasting styles. Newton, who gained 15 pounds up to 210 from a year ago, is more of a power back. Ahmed runs a 4.32 40-yard dash, fastest on the team.

The Huskies receiver corps is more experienced than Cal’s, primarily juniors and seniors. But they share a  characteristic with the Bears. Despite Baccellini’s long reception, none has a reputation as a legitimate deep threat.

Aaron Fuller, like Baccellini a senior, was UW’s leading pass catcher a year ago with 58 for 874 yards and four TDs. He had five catches, including two remarkable TD grabs, against Eastern Washington. Senior Chico McClatcher also had five catches against EW. 

Petersen needs to see quality production from that bunch. “That’s one group that really needs to come on for our offense to take the next step,” he said last week of Washington’s wide receivers. “That’s something we’ve been (harping) on for quite a long time, and I’m not off that one yet.”

Washington Athletics
Tight end Hunter Bryant

At tight end Hunter Bryant, who caught nine passes against the Bears two years ago, and Cade Otton  both technically started against Eastern Washington, as the Huskies opened with a double TE formation. They are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, although Bryant was by far the more productive last week with six catches for 81 yards.

The Bears best watch out, because the Huskies are not above a little chicanery. Their first touchdown came on a 4th-and-2 play from the EW 23. Newton lined up in a wildcat, took a direct snap and went untouched through the baffled Eagles defense for a touchdown.

Defensively the Huskies gave up just 306.2 yards per game last year, 12th best in the nation. Most of those responsible for that are gone including All-Americans linebacker Ben Burr-Kiven and defensive backs Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp. 

But Petersen and his defensive staff are in the process of proving you can teach new Dawgs, old tricks.

They held Eastern Washington, one of the more prolific offenses in the FBS, to 274 total yards and just 14 points. 

The Huskies play a base four-man front, although rather than defensive ends they call their outside rushers linebackers.

The Huskies linebackers and defensive backs jump around quite a bit before the snap, and that caused EW problems (motion penalties) early in the game. Those infractions have been a cause of concern for the Bears all during fall camp, so they need to be careful.

Washington defensive tackle Benning Potoa’e, who is almost always literally in the middle of things, was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. He had two of the Huskies’ sacks.

Washington Athletics
Myles Bryant (5) and Potoa'e Benning (8) combine on a tackle

Freshman linebacker MJ Tafisi was also impressive. “He’s an instinctual player,” Petersen said. “He had been last year, and we felt that all last year on the scout team. You could tell, like, even when he wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing, he would make plays and slip blocks and he’s a really physical player. So it was awesome to get him in there with Jackson Sirmon, because those guys are going to play a lot for us.”

(Sirmon is the nephew of Cal inside linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. While we are on the subject of the Sirmon family tree, Peter’s son Jacob is Eason’s backup at QB.)

Another defender Petersen praised was inside linebacker Kyler Manu, a fifth-year senior who made his first career start and was second on the team with seven tackles.  “Yeah, I thought he played well,” Petersen said. “He did a nice job. He played the best football that I’ve seen him play. Now he got more of an opportunity, was on the field longer. But he was a guy that had a nice game. We’re proud of him.”

The Huskies had four sacks against Eastern Washington, which was OK with the head coach, but he added a caveat.

“We need to play with that type of effort. I think the pass rush has improved,” he said. “It’s a fine line, because if you just light your hair on fire and at all costs get after this guy, you’re going to run by him half the time. You saw a little of that on Saturday because (EWU quarterback Eric) Barriere is a very good runner. So he steps up and out. So you’ve got to get after him, but you also have to work together and stay in your rush lanes. So there was progress there, no question. But there’s still work to do.”

Senior safety Myles Bryant is the most experienced defender and he was generally effective against EW, registering a team-high eight tackles. Nickel back Elijah Molden is about the same size as his Cal counterpart Traveon Beck (5-10, 190) and just as disruptive.

Placekicker Payton Henry is fine, but rather than try a 45-yard field goal late in the game Petersen chose to try to pick up a first on 4th and 6 from the EW 27. Henry’s career-long is 45 yards, so maybe Petersen didn’t trust him from there, as some in the Seattle media asked. Still the Huskies led 35-7 at the time, so the strategic importance was minimal. 

Washington leads the series, longest-running on the conference, 54-40-4. The Bears won last year and in 2015, but Washington won six straight before that. This is Cal’s earliest conference opener since 2011 when the Bears defeated Pac-12 newcomer Colorado in week two.

Wilcox spent four years as Petersen’s defensive coordinator at Boise State, so the two know each other well.


 

 




 

 

 
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