California pulls off stunner, beats No. 14 Washington 20-19

Washington quarterback Jacob Eason, center, passes to tight end Hunter Bryant (1) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against California, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE — Washington’s 20-19 loss to Cal on Saturday night (and Sunday morning) lasted five hours and 43 minutes, and it felt even longer.

That’s what happens when you endure a two-hour, 39-minute lightning delay, only to have your 15-game home winning streak surprisingly snapped. It’s what happens when you drop passes, miss tackles and repeatedly stall in the red zone. It’s what happens when Cal runs the ball at will and Washington wakes up with an 0-1 record in Pac-12 play.

When the Husky coaches did wake up — whenever that actually was — a cavalcade of corrections and teaching opportunities were waiting on film.

Here are three lingering questions from UW’s lightning-delayed loss.

Does UW need reinforcements at wide receiver?

It’s worth noting, before we go any further, that Cal’s secondary is probably the best the Huskies will see this season. The Golden Bears led the Pac-12 in passing defense (175.1 yards per game), pass efficiency defense (107.25) and interceptions (21) last season, and returned that entire starting secondary this fall. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that UW junior quarterback Jacob Eason was limited to 60 percent completions with 162 passing yards, zero touchdowns and an interception.

But it didn’t have to be that way.

After all, Washington’s wideouts dropped, what, six passes in the loss? Seniors Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Chico McClatcher combined for a grand total of nine catches for 89 yards. They were the only Husky wide receivers who registered a reception. No Quinten Pounds, who didn’t appear in his second consecutive game. No Ty Jones, who continues to sit with a potentially season-ending injury.

No UW underclassmen like true freshman Puka Nacua or redshirt freshman Austin Osborne, Marquis Spiker and Trey Lowe (who was not available while he recovers from an infection).

Considering the seniors’ contagious drop problems, should UW have given its young receivers more run?

“We really caught the ball pretty well in practice,” UW head coach Chris Petersen said after the game. “We’re such a practice-oriented team. It’s always about competition and if guys aren’t doing what they need to do.

“It wasn’t any one guy. You kind of spread (the drop problems) around a little bit. Those young guys will keep developing. They’re working hard, and we plan on getting them in the games more as we go. But sometimes it’s early in the season when they’re still pretty young and we’ve got to grow them a little bit.”

If the seniors can’t create separation, or consistently catch accurate passes, those young guys will have to grow in a hurry. Granted, the UW wideouts will probably look plenty improved against Hawaii and maybe even BYU, as they did in the season-opening 47-14 win over Eastern Washington. Tight ends Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton also provide a reliable safety valve.

But a Sept. 28 match up against USC looms, as does Pac-12 dates with Stanford, Oregon, Utah and Washington State.

Jacob Eason can’t throw passes to himself, and UW needs more from its experienced wide receivers.

Does Washington still have a red zone problem?

The UW offense gained three more first downs and 45 more total yards than Cal.

But field goals don’t win football games.

In all, the Huskies entered enemy territory in eight of their 11 offensive drives. They scored a grand total of 19 points. That included three field goals from inside the 20-yard line and two inside the 10.

Again, it didn’t have to be that way. On third-and-goal from the 4-yard line in the third quarter, Eason rolled to his left and delivered a pass to Baccellia, who was breaking to the corner of the end zone. Baccellia caught it, but his momentum carried the senior receiver a foot out of bounds. Could either have done something different?

“Maybe just a little more awareness,” Petersen said. “I know it’s easier for me to sit here and say, but Andre is running away from traffic and knows he’s got guys trailing him and all those things. But yeah, that was close. That was close.”

UW was even closer on the following drive, attempting to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cal 2-yard line. That’s when tight end (and recently converted offensive lineman) Corey Luciano was flagged for a false start, forcing another field goal.

The good news is that sophomore placekicker Peyton Henry connected on all four of his field goal tries, with the last one coming from 49 yards out with 2:05 left to give the Huskies a temporary two-point lead.

But that’s a band aid on a bullet hole. A season ago, Washington converted just 56.45 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns, which ranked 105th nationally and ninth in the Pac-12. They did it just once in four tries against Cal.

Petersen often said this offseason that solving the Huskies’ red zone problems was a difficult proposition, because it was never one thing. It was a penalty or a dropped pass or a poor play call, or all of them.

That’s still the case today.

Will the UW defense’s growing pains sting more than expected?

You’ve heard the number all offseason.

Washington’s defense must replace nine starters.

But inside the program, at least, there was a quiet confidence that Jimmy Lake’s crew would reload, not regress. The talent and depth in the UW secondary — with Keith Taylor, Myles Bryant, Elijah Molden, Kyler Gordon, Dominique Hampton, Julius Irvin, Cam Williams, Trent McDuffie and Asa Turner, etc. — was evident. There was also a thought that — even without Greg Gaines, Shane Bowman and Jaylen Johnson — a barrage of fresh bodies could ultimately bolster the UW defensive line.

All those things may still come to be. But in the loss to Cal, at least, the Huskies failed to consistently tackle. They looked — dare we say it? — undisciplined. They looked young.

And they are.

“I’m sure it’s a little bit of both — that guys were a little bit out of position and not fitting off each other like we would like them to,” Petersen said. “But it just seemed to me from the naked eye on the sideline that it’s more tackles than we’ve missed in a while. It just kind of showed up.”

And, specifically, it showed up in the second half. In the first 30 minutes — not counting the yearlong lightning delay, of course — Cal rushed for just 58 yards and 3.2 yards per carry. The Golden Bears completed 0 of 6 third downs and QB Chase Garbers was sacked three times.

In the second half, however, the Huskies were bent and broken. The Bears rushed for 134 yards and 6.7 yards per carry; they converted 3 of 5 third downs and Garbers was not sacked. On Cal’s final drive, he targeted redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon for a 19-yard completion and a pass interference penalty.

In many ways, it was the tale of two teams. It’s unclear which one will show up next.

“Obviously we’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit, now,” defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said. “The running back’s good. Their offensive line blocks really well. Their tight ends block well. They’ve got a good scheme. So I give all the credit to Cal. They did a nice job.”

Given what we know about the talent on UW’s defense, as well as their coaches’ track record in developing that talent, you’d expect these young Huskies to put that second half behind them. You’d expect them to refocus quickly and make strides next weekend against Hawaii. You’d expect a decisive response.

Now it’s up to the UW defense to meet (or exceed) those expectations.

But it’s certainly possible that replacing nine starters won’t be as painless as Husky fans had hoped.