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Washington-Cal preview: Goff and Bears stiff test

After preparing to limit scrambler Chuckie Keaton last week, the Washington Huskies (2-1) host Jared Goff and the California Golden Bears (3-0), the exact opposite offense. With sophomore free safety Budda Baker a question mark because of an ankle injury, UW could be shorthanded against an explosive passing attack.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Budda Baker paced up and down the Washington sideline, a noticeable limp in his gait due to a sprained ankle on the third play from scrimmage.

He was trying to come back, trying to convince the Huskies' training staff that he was good to go, that he could still contribute. He never saw the field again, and it never mattered as Washington pulled away held on for a 31-17 win over Utah State in the final non-conference game of the season.

It ended up not mattering much that Baker essentially missed the whole game. JoJo McIntosh filled Baker's spot and played well enough. Of course, it's tough to match the athleticism and headiness of the true sophomore, but there wasn't an obvious drop-off with McIntosh in center field instead of Baker.

But here comes to clincher: Washington won't face an injured and scrambling quarterback this week. no, Chuckie Keaton isn't the focus this week. It's the quarterback many pundits are calling the best in the country: Jared Goff.

The story in last year's Washington-Cal matchup was: How much pressure can the Huskies create?" With Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson and many others, the plan was to push Goff off of the launching platform and make him uncomfortable. They did just that. Goff's numbers were decent — 31-for-51 for 324 — but he failed to throw a touchdown and was sacked for times in a 31-7 UW win. The experience of the Washington front seven and relative inexperience of Cal's offense was the main reason, but that's flipped this year. Heavily.

Washington boasts a young, but really good, defense this year against a Cal offense that's had its way with opponents. The Golden Bears put 45 points on Texas in Austin last week, scored 35 on San Diego State and put up a mind-boggling 73 against Grambling. Goff is 68-for-93 for 898 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. He's competing 73.1 percent of his passes and holds a rating of 181.9. Compare those with Washington's Jake Browning's numbers (59-for-89, 844, 5 TDs, 2 INTs, 160.0 rating) and you see why Goff is moving up the Heisman list at the moment.

But let's take a step back and look at Browning's numbers. For a true freshman, those are damn good. And he looked better against Utah State than he did against Sacramento State, when he looked better than he did against Boise State. It's so encouraging. He threw a couple balls against the Aggies that looked like he's been playing at this level for three years, and he's only actually played three games.

But Washington still has some things to iron out offensively. The run game was poor — though Utah State has a really, really good run defense — and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith and head coach Chris Petersen still haven't figured out what to do with Jeff Lindquist. They'll bring him in to hand off or run QB power, then pull him and have Browning throw it. They almost (almost) let the game get away when they ran option with Lindquist at the goal line and watched as Utah State ran it back 100 yards for a touchdown. That needs to be fixed. It can't be obvious what is going to happen when the Mercer Island product enters the game. And right now it is.

And as Washington — and the rest of the Pac-12 — are silent on non-season-ending injuries, we still don't know much about Baker and his ankle. His nose for the ball, athleticism and leadership are going to be needed against a Cal team that's averaging more than 350 passing yards per game. Baker (or McIntosh, we just don't know), Sidney Jones, Zeke Turner, Brandon Beaver, Kevin King and Darren Gardenhire are going to need to play a sound game in the secondary, and Washington's young front seven will have to do the same job as last year to move Goff around and make him uncomfortable.

I like how Washington is playing right now, but Cal is playing well, too. This isn't going to be like recent Washington-Cal matchups where one team is obviously better than the other. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, and it'll be fun to see which quarterback outplays the other — the Heisman candidate junior, or the wunderkind freshman?

I can't wait.