Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. bout at Memorial Stadium pits a team playing for a national championship against a team playing for pride.
The Cal football team cannot make a bowl game, yet the losers of three straight are brimming with confidence as No. 2 Oregon comes to town. The least amount of points the Ducks have scored in a game this season is 42, not that the Bears are worried about containing the nation’s most prolific offense.
“I don’t see us giving up 42 points,” said linebacker Chris McCain. “We’re practicing as if we’re undefeated … Whatever Oregon get, it ain’t gonna be easy.”
Cal (3-7, 2-5 in the Pac-12) is not looking necessarily to play spoiler to Oregon’s BCS title hopes — the Bears have enough motivation playing for themselves and their teammates. Spirits are high, as there appears to be no lingering melancholia following the squad’s 21-13 bowl-crushing loss to Washington last week.
“I don’t need to be tripping about it,” McCain said. “It had me pissed off that we lost. When reality hits, there’s not much you can do. You can’t keep crying and complaining about it.”
The Ducks (9-0, 6-0) are coming off their closest game of the season, a 62-51 win at No. 18 USC. The Trojans got caught up in play action, McCain said — to successfully defend Oregon’s spread offense, the Bears must not let their eyes play them.
But that is easier said than done. Freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota’s 70.5 percent completion rate ranks fifth in the country, while Sports Illustrated called sophomore De’Anthony Thomas “the fastest man in football.”
The most lethal weapon may be senior running back Kenjon Barner, whose school-record 321 rushing yards vaulted him into Heisman consideration.
But, once again, the Bears are not concerned with numbers and records. Cal linebacker Robert Mullins said that the Ducks could line up Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson in the backfield, and the squad’s focus would not change.
“It’s the same thing as stopping any team, whether you’re playing Oregon or Middle Eastern Iowa,” said linebacker Robert Mullins. “It’s about executing, it’s about playing fast, it’s about tackling … it’s about forgetting the last play and looking toward the next play.”
Despite losing their last three matchups with the Ducks, the Bears have had modest success the last two seasons. In 2011, they led by one point at the half before Oregon blew them out in the third quarter.
McCain said that this year’s Oregon team is even faster. Barner uses his speed to beat defenders to the outside and then burst out long runs. He has more rushing yards this season than 42 Division I teams.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite as prolific,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. “It’s really something else …. It’s a tough offense. To even try to slow it down, no one really has.”
The Bears did two years ago at Memorial Stadium, when they held Oregon to just one offensive touchdown in a heartbreaking 15-13 loss.
That year’s Cal squad also had a losing record and an injured starting quarterback.
With Zach Maynard unlikely to start after spraining his knee in the Washington loss, Allan Bridgford is expected to be called upon to lead a shaky Cal offense. In mainly mop-up duty this season, the junior has completed 4-of-16 passes for 32 yards.
All-American receiver Keenan Allen will be missing his second consecutive game with a knee injury, but make no mistake: Injuries are not an excuse for Cal’s abysmal 2012 record.
“I don’t think it’s as big of a factor as everyone makes it out to be,” McCain said. “It’s all a part of the game. So what? If I get hurt, so what? That’s why we have depth.”
Facing a tiring team whose games are usually decided by halftime, the Bears will need all the depth they can get.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at email@example.com