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Washington Football Offensive Preview
A Heisman candidate and his NFL-caliber wide receivers take on the California Golden Bears.
The introductions to these articles are going to be hard to write this year, because there is only so much I can say about the death of these Pac-12 conference matchups without sounding too repetitive (unfortunately, not every team has a Jesus-and-prostitutes-loving coach). Cal and Washington are the longest running members of the PCC/PAC conference (1915-2023), and will be facing off in their 101st conference matchup on Saturday. That’s insane. And it’s all coming to an end because USC, UCLA, and the godawful TV networks who are changing the rules of football so that they can fit more commercials into a TV timeslot all wanted a little bit more money. I wish our west coast brethren well in the B1G (B2G?) Conference, and I am sad that this 101st matchup will be the last for the foreseeable future. Hopefully we can join you again some day.
Washington will be coming into the matchup sporting an AP #8 ranking, and this season, they clearly deserve it. For some recent history, let’s take a look at the last few times Cal played a ranked Washington team:
2018: Cal beat #13 Washington 12-10
2019: Cal beat #14 Washington 20-19
2022: Cal lost to #8 Washington 28-21
That 2022 matchup, in case you forgot (and how I envy you), was the week after Cal inexplicably lost to an awful Colorado team that finished the season 1-11.
I have been mentioning in the “Around the Conference” articles we do here that the Huskies are one of my picks to play in the conference championship this year, and I’ve also mentioned how Cal always inexplicably loses one game a season they shouldn’t while also winning another game they shouldn’t. In recent memory, Washington was that team that Cal somehow beat despite all odds to the contrary, like the fact that UW is currently 21-point favorites over Cal on Saturday.
Do I think Cal is going to win on Saturday? No, of course not, that would be crazy. About as crazy as a lightning strike during the game that postpones it to the wee hours of the morning and causes most of the UW fans to go home and consequently give up a driving factor in homefield advantage. To Washington, we are basically what Arizona is to Cal. In this case, we’re the ones with weird voodoo magic to spoil their season.
I don’t know how the game will go, but I’d be shocked if it’s the beatdown that Vegas oddsmakers predict.
A lot will be said about the quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his uber-talented receivers, but in my view, the success of this team starts right at the line. UW has excellent pass blockers, starting with a pair of NFL-caliber tackles, LT Troy Fautanu and RT Roger Rosengarten. Fautanu can be anywhere from an early to mid-round NFL Draft pick next year, while Rosengarten should propel up Draft boards this year protecting Penix’s blindside. Both of the tackles are very agile and can make great blocks down field.
Washington lost their starting center, Matteo Mele, to a season-ending injury against Tulsa, and starting left guard Julius Buelow was also banged up against Michigan State (and is thus questionable for the Cal game). So Washington may be playing a few backups on the interior, and so it may be time for Brett Johnson to shine. That said, those backups still looked pretty good to me against Michigan State, and so we can expect QB Michael Penix Jr to have some pretty solid protection on Saturday. It will be up to Cal to find creative ways to pressure the UW offense.
Michael Penix Jr opened the season second in odds to win the Heisman this year, behind only returning winner USC QB Caleb Williams. Penix is an NFL first round talent (although he may fall due to an extensive injury history), and Washington has put all the pieces around him that he needs to succeed. He was criticized for his ability to throw against pressure at Indiana—where he ended each of his 4 seasons with an injury thanks to the pressure they allowed—but Washington gave him the protection to keep him clean for the entire 2022 season, and he led the entire FBS in passing yards as a result (and he’s still #1 in the FBS this year so far, too).
Penix has great arm strength and the ability to make all the throws from a variety of platforms. He shows the ability to read a defense and anticipate where the holes in coverage will be, and he can manipulate a defense with his eyes as makes his reads across the field. He can throw a laser into a tight window, or loft the ball on a fade to where only his receiver can get it.
Let’s first take a look at that arm strength. Penix loves to throw the ball deep, and Washington unsurprisingly leads the country in yards per play:
Here he shows good timing and anticipation, and throws it with enough touch to get it just over the defender:
And again, Penix has shown some tremendous accuracy:
As a left-handed quarterback, his worst throws are often when he rolls to his right, but he usually compensates for it with his arm strength:
One area where Penix can get into trouble is his willingness to rely too heavily on his arm talent to force contested throws in search of a big play:
Penix is still athletic and could scramble if he needed to (and he hasn’t, behind this offensive line), but after 2 ACL tears, he needs to protect his future earning potential, and will often play smart and throw it away when the play is not there. I had mentioned in previous years that Penix’s Achilles heel is how he throws under pressure (keep in mind, there’s a difference between being under pressure from the pass rush during a snap while up 41-0, and being under pressure during a snap in a tight game where every play counts). This season, I have yet to see him throw under real pressure, so I have no idea if he’s improved at all in that regard.
Cal is going to face a gauntlet of future NFL quarterbacks this year, and Penix will pose the first big test to the Cal secondary. The game Saturday will give us a good idea of what we can expect from them in future matchups against, say, Oregon and USC.
Washington leads the country in passing yards per game, so the running game has been a bit of an afterthought here (UW is #128 out of 133 FBS teams in rushing attempts per game). This year the run game is led by Mississippi State transfer RB Dillon Johnson, after Cameron Davis’s season-ending injury.
Dillon Johnson has a power-running style, where he looks for the hole if it’s open, and looks to run over defenders if it’s not.
He’s a strong running back, but unlike the UW receivers, probably not going to win a footrace:
We haven’t seen too many meaningful carries from the UW running backs this season (a lot of their touches are coming in garbage time with UW trying to kill the clock). The new backup is Will Nixon, who also has versatility as a pass catcher.
During their beatdown of Michigan State last week, UW gave plenty of touches to freshman RB Tybo Rogers. Rogers looks to be a speedier back and is also reported to have some pass-catching abilities.
I do like the offensive line’s ability to get upfield on blocks for the running backs, but there haven’t been a ton of highlight plays out of the running backs this year.
This is a tricky section to write because I pretty much wrote it all in last year's preview, so I’ll try to focus on what’s new and not repeat myself too much. Michael Penix Jr is good, but it certainly helps to have three NFL-caliber wide receivers catching your passes.
Numero Uno is clearly Rome Odunze. He’s currently being talked about as a potential first round draft pick, mainly because of his enormous catch radius and contested catch ability. One weird criticism I’ve heard from those so-called NFL Draft experts about Odunze is about his speed—for every big catch radius Michael Thomas-type that doesn’t have game-breaking speed, there are plenty more in that mold that don’t pan out in the NFL. But… what? It reminds me of the criticism of Amon-Ra St. Brown who I thought had elite speed (that’s a direct quote from one of my USC articles, by the way) but “draft experts” said he had “average speed,” so I figured I just didn’t know what was considered speedy in the NFL. But no, Amon-Ra St. Brown is still fast in the NFL (and killing it these days with Jared Goff), just the way that Rome Odunze is still fast despite putting on more muscle/bulk this season. He was a state champion in Track & Field, for crying out loud.
The gameplan for Rome Odunze these days is to pretty much just throw it in a spot where only Odunze has a shot at it, and Penix is quite good at that:
Defenses this season have paid special attention to Rome Odunze, and I’ve seen him bracketed and double-covered a lot this season and was prepared to explain away his receiving stats as such… until I looked it up, and it turns out that even despite constant double coverage, Odunze is 2nd in the FBS in receiving yards this season. Again, it’s probably because of his fantastic contested catch ability—if he can already catch the ball with a corner draping all over him, how much difference is it really going to make to have a second defender nearby? Rome Odunze won’t get wide open with the special defensive attention… but he never needed to in the first place.
Odunze has excellent body control (related to his giant catch radius), and he’s good at tracking the ball in the air, adjusting to it, and making difficult catches. He’s basically a vacuum for catches for any halfway decent quarterback:
Next up is Jalen McMillan, a possession receiver known for his catch-and-run ability, or ability to create yards after the catch:
I mean, if this isn’t the definition of “give it to him in space and see what happens”, I don’t know what is:
McMillan is currently projected as a mid-round draft pick. Like Odunze, he also has a large catch radius and vacuums up everything that’s near him, but he’s probably not going to be able to physically dominate corners at the next level.
I’ve talked about this before, but McMillan is a great route runner who uses that ability to get separation:
And because of his ability to create, UW will find ways to get him the ball in space:
WR Ja'Lynn Polk is a deep route specialist, who is currently putting up an absurd 23.1 yards/catch. He uses his speed to get behind the defense:
And he’s shown some really good hands as well. Watch him hang on as he lays out for this catch:
The UW offensive gameplan with this trio is to stress the defensive coverages with route combos, misdirection plays, and try to get a defensive back out of position so that Penix can hit one of these three receivers deep.
Germie Bernard appears to be the new Taj Davis: a guy with speed that they like to involve on jet sweeps:
I think Kalen DeBoer likes Jack Westover more than Devin Culp in the receiving game, and Westover has received a lot of targets on short yardage situations (e.g. fake run blocking before going out for a short route over the middle, etc). He is a reliable receiver:
In previous seasons, I had criticized the tight end Devin Culp for his stone hands, but I haven’t seen any drops so far this season:
Also worth mentioning is the Cal Poly transfer TE Josh Cuevas, who has had a couple big catches in relief of the other guys (i.e. late in the game when UW had pulled their starters).
It’s clear that Cal will have their hands full with the bevy of receiving talent Washington has.
Yes, Penix is really good, but in my view, his offensive line and his receivers are even better (and that’s not at all a knock on Penix, as I’d be shocked if e.g. Odunze didn’t also get drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft). Therefore, I see this game coming down to whether or not Cal can disrupt one of those other aspects of the game: can they cause havoc on the interior of the offensive line and not let Penix sit in the pocket all day? Can the secondary limit the number of explosive pass plays UW is certain to have? Cal can’t stop all the UW receivers, but can they at least limit the damage enough so that the offense has a chance?
My brain says probably not. But my faith in weird Cal voodoo magic says:
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