Cal football will play first Pac-12 contest against Oregon

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It’s almost too easy to frame Cal vs. Oregon as an offensive love affair. After all, the matchups practically write themselves: Jared Goff vs. Marcus Mariota, Brendan Bigelow vs. De’Anthony Thomas, Chris Harper vs. Josh Huff.

But when Cal travels to Eugene, Ore., to take on the No. 2 Ducks at 7:30 p.m on Saturday to initiate both teams’ Pac-12 season, the real matchups are between Oregon’s second-ranked offense and Cal’s 123rd-ranked defense and between Cal’s ninth-ranked offense and Oregon’s 30th-ranked defense.

Led by Mariota and Thomas, the vaunted Ducks’ spread offense averages 672 yards and just over 61 points per contest.

“They put up a lot of points every week,” said freshman quarterback Jared Goff. “They get hundreds of yards every week. They’ve been doing that for years.”

While Cal’s offense, like Oregon’s, has demonstrated its ability to put up points in a hurry, the Bears’ defense has largely failed to slow down anybody this season, averaging 42 points against and about 556 yards allowed per game.

After already facing off against high-octane offenses such as those of No. 4 Ohio State and No. 17 Northwestern, the going won’t get any easier for Andy Buh’s unit.

“They are as good an offense as I’ve seen,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “They are really playing at a high level. They’ve got a lot of weapons. They haven’t turned the ball over this year.”

Even if the Bears play better than usual on the defensive side of the ball, Cal’s Bear Raid offense will face its first serious test against an Oregon defense that surrenders only nine points per game. The Ducks have also forced seven turnovers through their first three games, good enough for the second-best turnover margin in the country.

Similar to their offense, the Ducks boast one of the most athletic defenses in the country, led by linebacker Derrick Malone. The standout junior leads the team in tackles with 27. Junior Tony Washington is second on the team, with 14 tackles. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound defensive end has also accounted for 2.5 sacks through three games.

“They’re extremely athletic, extremely fast,” Goff said. “Their D-line is pretty tall; they got a couple of 6-foot-8 guys. They’re going to be different than any team that we’ve played.”

But against a defense as dominant as Oregon’s, Goff won’t be able to do it all by himself. Cal’s running game might just be its best defense against the Oregon offense. By dominating the time of possession through their run game, the Bears can keep Oregon’s explosive offense off the field and give their defense sufficient rest to keep up with the high-flying Ducks.

At this point in the season, Cal’s run game has been virtually nonexistent, averaging only 118.67 yards per game. Still, Dykes insists his attention won’t be focused on a balanced playsheet.

“If we think it’s going to give us the best chance throwing the football every down, we’ll do it,” Dykes said. “I hope we don’t — I don’t think that’s the recipe — but we’re going to do whatever we think gives us the best chance to win.”

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.