Whether people expect Cal coach Jeff Tedford to make a quarterback change will be almost irrelevant come kickoff 12:30 p.m. today against Washington. When your team goes up against the worst rush defense in the conference and you boast a runner that has notched over 1,000 yards this season in Justin Forsett, the game plan is pretty simple. Expect a heavy dose of "Tex" this afternoon.
The Huskies are reeling. After a making a splash to start the season by heading to Syracuse and taking down the Orangemen 42-12 in front of a nationally televised ESPN audience, Washington's inexperience and age has really caught up to them. Washington has lost seven of their last eight games which included a six-game losing streak between early September and mid October.
Talks surrounding the Huskies (3-7, 1-6 in the Pac-10) this week spoke of the status of starting freshman quarterback Jake Locker and his neck stinger suffered last week against Oregon State. Locker, who has passed for 1,696 yards this season and rushed for another 807 on the ground, is not expected to play today. Instead, the reigns will go to senior signal-caller Carl Bonnell, who will ironically be making his second consecutive start against Cal in replacement of an injured quarterback.
Last season, the veteran stepped in to replace the athletic Isaiah Stanback in the Bears eventually 31-24 overtime victory in Berkeley. Washington coach Tyrone Willingham expressed fully confidence in Bonnell's abilities this week though as the Huskies look to break their losing trend in what will be senior day at Husky Stadium this afternoon.
Bonnell came in of relief of Locker during the loss to the Beavers last week and played well, rallying the team from a 20-9 deficit to cut the lead in half with two late fourth quarter touchdowns before eventually falling 29-23.
Players to Watch
Talks surrounding Locker going into this game are obvious considering his running and passing abilities but with the dynamic freshman out, look for a heavy dose from senior running back Louis Rankin. Rankin has been a little inconsistent this season, but is a player who is experienced and has shown in the past that he can produce on the ground. Rankin has rushed for 853 yards and five touchdowns this season, which included a 255-yard explosion against Stanford on November 3.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Rankin hails from nearby Stockton – the same hometown as Cal wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins – so he always plays with an extra boost when going up against the Bears defense. Last season against Cal, Rankin rushed for 88 yards on 22 carries.
In the receiving game, look for Bonnell to throw to a pair of seniors. Anthony Russo and Marcel Reece are both big and strong and have combined for 72 catches and 11 receiving touchdowns this season.
Defensively, the Huskies have been sub par to say the least. Washington ranks last in the Pac-10 rush defense and ninth in total defense. Washington is solid in their pass coverage though, ranking third in the conference behind USC and Arizona State.
E.J. Savannah is the name to keep an eye out for, as the junior linebacker has recorded a team-high 91 tackles this season, 10 of which coming for loss. Off the edge, senior Greyson Gunheim is the Huskies premier threat, as the Seabastopol (Calif.) native has notched 6.5 sacks this season.
Quick Look at Cal
Despite taking an "L" to the chin for the fourth consecutive time to USC last weekend, the Bears remained very upbeat and enthusiastic heading to today's road contest. Cal (6-4, 3-4) has certainly fallen hard on its back after holding the distinction as the No. 2 team in the country at one point this season, but as players noted this week "it is what it is" and the only thing they can do is to keep playing and attempt to finish out the season strong.
The Bears have lost four out of five games but if there is a positive in those losses, it's that every contest has been close. Except the season opener last season against Tennessee in Knoxville, the Bears have never been blown off the field under Tedford, which is a positive that both coaches and players seemed to point to in regards to describing the season this week.
Although it is technically bowl eligible right now, Cal will be better served to win at least one more game to essentially clinch a bowl spot and doing it on the road against an athletic Washington team that will play with a lot of emotion today would be one of the season's biggest accomplishments.
Players to Watch
Obviously, when you run up against a team that give up an average of 204.5 yards per game on the ground, it's not rocket science what fans should expect from the Bears offense today. Forsett is the second leading rusher in the Pac-10 behind Oregon's Jonathan Stewart and has recorded an excellent senior season in replacement of Marshawn Lynch. Forsett has rushed for 1,169 yards this season and 13 touchdowns, which is tops amongst running backs in the conference.
With the Cal offensive line clicking the ball it has the last couple games, which included an impressive performance up front against a talented USC front seven last week, Forsett should have another field day today.
"My mindset now is that I want to win," Forsett said. "That's the main goal right now. We can't worry about anything else that happened in the past. We need to win.
In the passing game, quarterback Nate Longshore has been in the spotlight of late and not for any good reasons. Longshore threw two fourth quarter interceptions against the Trojans last to push his career fourth quarter statistics to one passing touchdown against 11 interceptions. Longshore took major heat after the contest and even took the blame for the loss.
But his teammates were quick to come to Longshore's aid this week, stating that it's not all the junior quarterback's fault.
"I haven't seen a difference in Nate's confidence. After the game he felt really bad but he's a competitor," Forsett said. "It's hard when you have individual that want to point finger. Our team is not like that and it's good to see that we are going to win together and lose together."
Defensively, the players in highlights this game will be outside linebacker Anthony Felder. The Seattle native has had an outstanding season after an injury riddled sophomore campaign last year. Felder said he relishes the opportunity to go and play back home today and hopes his effort can bring to the table a Bears victory.
On a Cal defense that has been wildly inconsistent this season, Felder has been the one constant, racking up 95 tackles this season, which ranks third in the Pac-10.
"I'm definitely excited to go home," he said.
-- Sophomore rover Marcus Ezeff will see limited action today after sitting out essentially the last month of the season with a pulled quad.
-- Senior defensive end Rulon Davis will not play.
-- Freshman running back Jahvid Best will not play.
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC-Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune, and will cover Cal football in the fall of 2007.