CAL Vs. NO. 2 OREGON
Saturday, Sept. 28, 7:30 p.m.\
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Any way you look at it, Cal's Pac-12 opener against No. 2 Oregon (3-0) on Sept. 28 looks like a bad matchup for the Bears (1-2).
Fans may enjoy the contest, which features two fast-paced offenses intent on getting off as many plays as possible. But it may not be much fun for Cal, which has little reason to believe it can stay with the Ducks.
For starters, the game is at Oregon's Autzen Stadium, generally considered the toughest stadium in the conference for opposing teams - partly because of the noise generated by Ducks fans, partly because of the fast surface that enhances Oregon's speed advantage.
This is the first road game for Cal and true freshman quarterback Jared Goff. He played well in Cal's first three games, but it's a lot easier for an inexperienced quarterback to maintain his poise in a friendly environment.
More significant than the site is the fact that Oregon may have the most explosive offense in the country, while Cal's defense has been one of the nation's worst, despite playing at home.
Cal ranks 121st of 123 FBS teams in total defense, and has yielded at least 500 yards in every game. That includes Portland State, an FCS team that rolled up 553 yards on the Bears.
Needless to say, Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota have a stronger offense than Portland State. The Ducks rank second in the nation in total offense, averaging 672.0 yards a game, and they are the only team in the country that has yet to commit a turnover this season.
More to the point, Cal ranks 121st in rushing defense, ahead of only New Mexico State and Massachusetts, while Oregon is second in the country in rushing offense, at 355.3 a game.
Cal must hope some of its injured defensive starters return, then pack the line of scrimmage to stop the Ducks running game, especially the read option, and hope Mariota has a poor game throwing.
Offensively, the Bears must rely on Goff to have a big day. It's not in Sonny Dykes' nature to slow the tempo, so Goff, who leads the nation in passing yards per game, must complete a high percentage of passes and try to match the Ducks score for score. That is asking a lot of a true freshman playing his first road game without much of a running game to help. Plus, Goff is facing an Oregon team that is tied for fifth nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 9.0 points a game. The Ducks' strength defensively is their talented, experienced secondary, so avoiding turnovers will be Goff's top priority.
One other trend favors Oregon. Cal has started slowly in all its games this season. It trailed Northwestern and Portland State by 10 points in the first half, and got behind Ohio State 21-0 in the first six minutes of the game. The Bears got back into each of those games, but that may not be possible against Oregon, which has scored 104 points in the first half of its first three games.
Cal had a bye last week, and that extra time may help the Bears solve some of their issues regarding run defense and slow starts. But Oregon is coming off a bye as well.
CAL PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Jared Goff, a true freshman, leads the nation in total offense (429.7 yards per game) and passing yardage (435.3) and is second in passes attempted per game (56.0). He has thrown four interceptions but two of them were tipped. He has shown poise that's uncommon for a true freshman, but he played his first three games at home. Goff has shown an ability to play catchup.
--WRs Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs - The two sophomores combined for 49 receptions in three games. Cal is one of three FBS teams with two receivers averaging better than 100 receiving yards per game. Treggs has 28 catches and is averaging 105.7 yards a game, and Harper has caught 21 passes and is averaging 108.0 yards a game. They need to catch virtually every ball thrown their way against Oregon, so the Bears' offense can stay on the field for long stretches.
--LB Khairi Fortt - Fortt leads the Bears in tackles with 25 and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 2.5. Fortt needs to rack up a lot of tackles and take care of his responsibilities against Oregon, which will try to run right over the Bears. If Fortt can get penetration and break up Oregon's running game in the backfield, it may slow down the Ducks. He is a key factor in handling Oregon's read option. The Bears need production from this middle linebacker position, and if Fortt can't provide it, Michael Barton will see playing time.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads the series with Oregon 39-34-2, but the Ducks have won the last four meetings, including a 59-17 Oregon victory at Cal last year. The Bears' last victory over Oregon came in 2008, and Cal has not won in Eugene, Ore., since 2007.
QUOTE: "They are so good on offense, it allows them to play incredibly aggressive on defense, take some chances." - Cal head coach Sonny Dykes, on an Oregon defense that has forced seven turnovers and has 16 tackles for loss.
ASSESSING CAL'S RUNNING GAME: Cal figured to rely on its passing game in Sonny Dykes' spread offense, but it expected to get considerably more out of its running game than it has so far. The Bears are averaging just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt in an offense that typically enhances a runner's yards-per-attempt average. Backups Daniel Lasco (5.4 yards per carry) and freshman Khalfani Muhammad (4.6) have been more effective than starter Brendan Bigelow (4.0). But the offensive line has not been opening many holes, and coach Sonny Dykes has been contemplating making personnel changes up front.
ASSESSING CAL'S PASSING GAME: Cal's passing game in Sonny Dykes' spread offense has been very productive. The Bears are second in the nation in passing yards per game (438.7), behind only Baylor. Cal freshman QB Jared Goff leads the nation in passing yards per game. Goff and reliable WRs Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have kept the Bears in games. The one shortcoming has been pass protection. The Bears have yielded 12 sacks in three games, and only three teams in the country have allowed more than 4.0 sacks per game. Even with the frequency with which Cal passes the ball, that's too many sacks.
ASSESSING CAL'S RUN DEFENSE: Every Cal opponent has rushed for at least 220 yards and averaged at least 5.2 yards per carry. And it seems to be getting worse. Portland State, an FCS team, averaged 6.3 yards per running attempt, and Ohio State averaged 6.0 per carry while rushing for 332 yards. The switch from a 3-4 defense used last year under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to the 4-3 used this year by Andy Buh has been unable to stop the run.
ASSESSING CAL'S PASS DEFENSE: The Bears' young and injury-plagued secondary has been scorched for 294.3 yards a game. That ranks 110th of 123 FBS schools. Because the Cal offense plays so fast and gets off so many plays, the Bears' defense must be on the field for a lot of plays as well. But that does not account for all the trouble Cal has had defending the pass. Although injuries to defensive backs have contributed to the problem, a bigger issue is the lack of a pass rush. The Bears have just three sacks in three games and seldom hurry the opposing quarterback. Cal started five defensive backs against Ohio State, which threw a 90-yard touchdown pass of its second play.
-- LB David Wilkerson, who left Cal during fall camp as he dropped on the depth charter, has transferred to Arizona. He will be a non-scholarship player at Arizona for the time being and will be eligible to play next season.
--OG Matt Cochran, who was a starter, will be out about a month after having surgery on his ankle on Sept. 19.
--DE Brennan Scarlett has not played this season because of a hand injury, and he is questionable for the Sept. 28 game against Oregon.
--MLB Nick Forbes has missed the first three games with a back injury. He is getting closer to returning, but it's unclear whether he will play against Oregon.
--DT Mustafa Jalil has missed the first three games with a knee injury and is questionable for the Oregon game.
--LB Michael Barton, a redshirt freshman who missed the Ohio State game with a knee injury, is back at practice and competing for a starting job.