Cal football prepares to face flailing Ducks

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Ethan Epstein/File

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With half the season officially in the books, the 2016 Cal football team (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) remains just as puzzling as it was in August.

The offense has looked almost as potent as last year’s, the team has notched two impressive home wins against ranked teams and Chad Hansen has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the country.

But such progress is tarnished by perpetual struggles in away games — all three losses have come on the road — a bevy of questionable coaching decisions and a defense that oscillated between looking average and abysmal before settling on the latter. With an exceptionally difficult second half approaching, the Bears are running out of time to save face.

After turning a sure win against Oregon State into an embarrassing loss, Cal returns from its bye week to welcome Oregon (2-4, 0-3) to Memorial Stadium on Friday.

“It’s been a long season for us, with starting the season early and going to Australia. So our guys needed to get away a little bit so we gave them a couple days off. They came back to work and had three good days of practice which was good for us,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “We were able to focus on some fundamentals, and at the same time get a little bit of a head start on Oregon.”

The biggest questions heading into the game involve injuries to Hansen and quarterback Davis Webb, both sustained against the Beavers. Webb injured his hand early in the game and, though he stayed in, floundered against a poor Oregon State defense but is expected to start against the Ducks. Hansen returned to practice Sunday and is also expected to play, though Cal faithfuls will have to wait until Friday to see if their breakout player is back to normal as he remains day-to-day.

Luckily for the Bears, there’s no better team to face in the Pac-12 than Oregon if you need a confidence boost. The Ducks ranked dead last in the conference in defense — although barely worse than Cal — and is coming off a 70-21 demolition at the hands of No. 5 Washington to continue a four-game losing streak.

“They’ve lost three conference games to probably the three hottest teams in the league. They caught some teams that were pretty hot and all three of them can score points and move the ball,” Dykes said. “They’re a bit young in some places and a little bit banged up but you can see the guys improving and start to trigger faster and play more aggressively.”

But as dreadful as the Ducks look, they are a mirror image of the Bears in some ways. Both field porous defenses, are driven by their offenses and have not fared well in conference play so far. Oregon leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (257.8) behind junior Royce Freeman and sophomore Tony Brooks-James, who have combined for 844 rushing yards this season. Of course, Cal possesses the weakest run defense in the conference, surrendering 283.8 yards per game. The Bears, however, lead the pack in passing yards per game (377.8) while Oregon is No. 11 in both pass and run defense, meaning running backs Tre Watson and Khalfani Muhammad may also find some success Friday, especially with Vic Enwere out for the season with a broken foot.

With the two worst defenses in the conference set to do battle, any outcome besides a shootout seems impossible. The Ducks will be led by true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, who usurped Dakota Prukop in time for Oregon to get thrashed by the Huskies. Herbert was at least serviceable against Washington’s suffocating defensive unit and will have a decidedly easier time against the Bears, even for a young starter still finding his bearings. Conversely, Cal’s ability to hound the freshman on defense may determine how this coin flip of a game will end.

Though many pundits might peg Friday’s game as both a must-win and a should-win for Cal, the team has proven to be anything but predictable. But to entertain even the slightest of bowl game hopes, the Bears must prove they can at least defeat a pedestrian Oregon team at home.

Michelle Lee covers footballl. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee.