In yet another high stakes season for No. 6 Washington football, it’s safe to assume that the team’s season opener against Auburn may be its toughest game all season. In addition, two formidable Pac-12 rivals should present big challenges to the Huskies’ conference title hopes once again: preseason No. 15 USC (should the two meet in the championship game) and preseason No. 13 Stanford. However, college football has shown us year after year that many of the most competitive matchups any given season are the ones you don’t see coming.
That being said, a couple of other Pac-12 foes, Utah and California, may have prime opportunities to give the Huskies a run for their money on their home fields. Today, we’re going to take a look at how these two teams have the potential to catch Washington off-guard.
Not exactly road warriors
It’s safe to say that no team can consistently play as well or better on the road as they do at home. In 2016, Washington was the exception to the rule, going 5-0 away from Husky Stadium. Last year, the team took a step back in this department, going 3-2 with two critical losses to Arizona State and Stanford. The ASU loss was especially gut-wrenching, with the damaged but still usually potent offense only generating seven points and 230 yards of total offense.
Not to mention that the Huskies missed two field goals from inside 30 yards.
Fast forward to this year, where the UW will go on the road to face the Utes and Bears. Two years ago, Washington beat both in consecutive weeks on the road (31-24 in Salt Lake City, 66-27 at Berkeley).
In addition to the road element, both games come at critical junctures of Washington’s schedule. The game against Utah will take place about a month from now on September 15, the earliest a Jake Browning-led team has ever played a conference game. With the Huskies only playing against one non-Power 5 team in 2018, they will basically dive straight into conference play after the Auburn game, North Dakota notwithstanding.
The California game, on the other hand, will be the UW’s second-to-last road game of the season and will come just before an important late-season match-up with Bryce Love and the Cardinal — potentially a trap if the Dawgs are caught looking ahead.
Two experienced opponents
Washington beat both Utah and Cal last year but in very different ways. Regardless, the two teams will be going into their matchups with UW with virtually the same lineups as a season ago.
Utah will return 14 of its starters including quarterback Tyler Huntley. In last year’s game, Huntley put on a show, throwing for 293 yards and two touchdowns and adding 48 yards and a score on the ground. The defense, which was the 32nd best in the nation in terms of yards allowed, sacked Browning twice. Despite the team’s top two receivers departing the program, the members of the offensive line have 54 career starts between them, ensuring continuity in front of Huntley as he drops back to pass this year.
Cal, on the other hand, was decimated by Washington 38-7 in 2017, and won only five games the entire season. However, it was head coach Justin Wilcox’s first year as head coach — the Bears were generally predicted, before the season, to do worse than their five wins — and three of the team’s losses were by three points or less. The Bears will field 18 of last season’s 22 starters, 10 on offense. This includes quarterback Ross Bowers, who passed for 3,000 yards last season but only 80 against the Huskies’ dominant defense. Then there’s running back Patrick Laird, who rushed for 1,127 yards last season, also returning to the backfield along with under-the-radar but prolific weapons like Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton.
So, how can either team possibly win?
Utah’s defense had tremendous success stifling Myles Gaskin and the run game, despite missing two defensive starters. Gaskin could only manage 52 yards on a whopping 17 carries, scoring his two touchdowns on runs inside 10 yards. Dante Pettis actually had more rushing yards (34 yards) than backup tailback Lavon Coleman (28 yards). Where they got burned was in the receiving game, as Gaskin led all pass-catchers with 114 yards and a score, and Pettis added 94 yards of his own.
The Utes may have to depend on their own running game offensively to have a chance. Receiver Raelon Singleton, who had both of the team’s receiving touchdowns against Washington, has since transferred to Houston, but running back Zack Moss will be back. Moss put up stats similar to Laird, rushing for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding 243 receiving yards to his overall total. Huntley is also a capable rusher in his own right.
Cal will have to work much harder to find things it can do against Washington. What they can watch to find positives, however, is their game film from the week after against No. 8 Washington State. The Bears demolished the Cougars 37-3, with the defense forcing five Luke Falk interceptions and two fumbles, one of them being returned for a touchdown. Bowers had a clean game on offense, scoring two total touchdowns in the process.
If Cal can summon some of that same magic to create havoc against Washington, it may be able to squeeze out a massive upset victory if they catch Browning on a very bad day.
It may seem unlikely that either team could have any chance against a Huskies squad with a wealth of both experience and talent. But if any teams are going to sneak up on them, these two are prime candidates.