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What to watch for in Washington’s Pac-12 opener against Cal

Washington quarterback Dylan Morris in action against Arkansas State in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

UW key players

QB Dylan Morris: 57.4% completions, 886 passing yards, 4 pass TD, 5 INT, 1 rush TD

WR Jalen McMillan: 10 catches, 175 yards, 17.5 yards per reception, 1 TD

DB Brendan Radley-Hiles: 14 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery

LB Edefuan Ulofoshio: 19 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 PBU

Cal key players

QB Chase Garbers: 63.6% completions, 774 passing yards, 5 pass TD, 2 INT, 106 rushing yards, 1 rush TD

RB Damien Moore: 237 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 5 TD, three catches, 16 receiving yards

LB Evan Tattersall: 22 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU

S Daniel Scott: 19 tackles, 2 INT, 0.5 TFL

Stuffing the run

Washington knew Michigan wanted to run the ball, and the Huskies still couldn’t stop it. In a 31-10 loss on Sept. 11, they surrendered a whopping 343 rushing yards with 6.1 yards per carry and four rushing scores. The Wolverines were forced to attempt just 15 passes in an overwhelming win. Likewise, Washington knows Cal would like to run the ball. The Golden Bears rank 10th in the country in yards per carry (6.11), and much like UW, they pride themselves on playing a physical brand of football. In Cal’s 20-19 upset win at Washington in 2019, the Bears racked up 192 rushing yards and two rushing scores, on 5.1 yards per carry. Will UW’s defensive front seven be up to the task on Saturday? Only time will tell.

A balanced attack

This is not the same vaunted Cal defense of the last several seasons. Through three games, the 1-2 Bears rank 113th nationally in total defense (448.3 yards allowed per game), 92nd in scoring defense (28.7 points per game), 89th in opponent yards per pass attempt (7.6) and 76th in opponent yards per carry (3.99). But can UW build upon its apparent offensive improvement against Arkansas State, or was that little more than a momentary mirage? Ideally, a viable vertical passing attack – like the one quarterback Dylan Morris developed with wide receiver Jalen McMillan last weekend – will force Cal’s defense not to crowd the box, thus allowing UW’s running backs room to operate. But Morris, as well as UW’s offensive line and wide receivers, need to show continued improvement against more legitimate competition on Saturday.

The turnover battle

In their two losses this season, the Huskies committed four turnovers without forcing a single one. In their lone win, they committed three more turnovers … and forced three as well. Likewise, in their last two losses to Cal, they committed a total of four turnovers and forced zero. Are you sensing a theme? UW typically struggles when it fails to force turnovers, and the Huskies have forced a whole lot of them historically in Jimmy Lake’s defense. But ball security – particularly for Morris, who has five interceptions in three games – has been a struggle early this season. As in their last two meetings, the team that wins the turnover battle on Saturday will probably win the game.

Vorel’s prediction

In the battle of 1-2 Pac-12 programs, someone has to win. And in truth, these two teams operate in incredibly similar ways.

Final score: Huskies 21, Golden Bears 20