Cal football fans have a fond recent memory of Oregon. They likely remember last year’s shootout double-overtime contest at California Memorial Stadium, which ended 52-49 extremely late into the night on an interception by Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk.
But history is written by the victors, so Cal fans may be missing a few of the crucial details. Oregon, however, has not forgotten those details. Not only are the Ducks a completely different team this year, but they also surely remember that painful road defeat and their overall tragic showing all of last season. This time around, they’ve improved, and they’ll also be at home this weekend when they host the Bears in Eugene.
Last season, the Oregon football team was characterized by one word: meltdown. Not only did the Ducks finish 2-7 in Pac-12 play and 4-8 overall, but they also experienced multiple public instances of internal collapse.
Former head coach Mark Helfrich infamously used the words “malaise” and “trainwreck” to describe a loss against Colorado. He then one-upped himself a few weeks later calling players’ “entitlement” the reason for a blowout at the hands of Washington.
To say the least ─ record aside ─ it would need a monumental effort to worsen such a situation, and the Ducks appear to have successfully migrated through the offseason and away from last year’s calamity.
Quarterback Justin Herbert looks to be coming into his own four games into his sophomore season, with eight passing and two rushing touchdowns to only two picks, and running back Royce Freeman has picked up the majority of the carries, after splitting touches with Tony Brooks-James last season. Freeman has looked lethal on the ground through four games, eclipsing his last-season total for touchdowns and leading the nation with 10 trips to the end zone.
Of course, this could just be a classic case of outmatching cupcake nonconference opponents. Things did look a lot better for the Ducks before last week’s upset, a 37-35 loss to Arizona State that dropped Oregon from the No. 24 spot out of the rankings. The defeat to the Sun Devils brought the high-flying Ducks down to earth after three nonconference games had Oregon looking nearly invincible. The Ducks had put up a whopping 77 points on Southern Utah, and their closest game of the three was a 42-35 win over Nebraska, in which the Ducks led 42-14 at halftime.
“(Oregon is) very very talented,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “A lot of speed, they spread you out all over the field, and because of that, their explosive plays are plentiful.”
Despite the narrow loss to Arizona State, Oregon is still a 14-plus-point favorite against Cal, which is coming off a respectable defeat at the hands of USC. And while Oregon’s offense looks like it will put up numbers similar to the 49 points from last year’s contest, it is Cal’s defense that has shown stark improvement.
After being ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed with 42.6 per game last season, the Bears are now 59th at a respectable 24 per game. In addition, the Cal defense has been a turnover-forcing machine, intercepting six passes and recovering five fumbles.
In an environment as notoriously loud as Autzen Stadium, Cal may have to rely on its defense to stay in the game, as the offensive play-calling could easily be disrupted by noise levels. And despite the talent that Oregon possesses, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox believes that Cal’s success in stopping Freeman and the Ducks’ offense is simply a matter of execution.
“Executing and doing it down-in and down-out,” Wilcox said. “Limiting the explosive plays as best as we can, making them earn what they get.”
And while this year’s contest is in Oregon, and both teams appear to have improved from last season, there are clearly many unknowns heading into this weekend’s contest — the effectiveness of the Cal defense and the Oregon offense against conference opponents most notably. But one thing is for sure, and Cal fans shouldn’t forget it: These Ducks are different beasts from last season. Watch out this weekend.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected]