Crucial Contest In Corvallis

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When the Cal football team raced out to four wins in its first five games of the season, it gave itself a chance at achieving something that seemed completely ludicrous and unattainable before the season began. Those first four wins gave the Bears a shot at a bowl game.

Since then, it’s been all downhill. Losers of three straight, Cal enters its last four games of the season needing wins in half of those contests in order to go bowling. Because two of those games are against USC and Stanford, this Saturday’s game in Corvallis, Oregon, against Oregon State takes on an elevated status. It’s one of two games — BYU is the other — that the Bears have a real shot at winning. I hate to use the phrase, but Saturday’s game is a must win.

Oregon State is just 3-4 on the season. The Beavers’ offense is ranked No. 93 in scoring and No. 98 in total yards. The defense isn’t much better, ranking No. 63 points allowed per game.

Still, in order to leave Corvallis with their fifth win of the season, head coach Sonny Dykes and his crew are going to have to fix some lingering issues.

Cal’s defense is not one of those problems that is going to be fixed. The defense has been downright awful for eight games — by far one of the worst in the country. There’s no reason to expect it to magically start tackling any better in the last four games.

Which leads us to two realistic areas of improvement: the offense and coaching.

Cal’s offense has scored at a prolific rate, averaging 41.5 points per game. They’ve gained yardage with ease, putting up 504.3 yards per game. But they’re also a sloppy offense.

Through eight games, Cal has turned the ball over 13 times. While the offense can usually make up for those turnovers by lighting up the scoreboard, the Bears’ already porous defense has been the victim of defending a short field.

In Cal’s 31-7 loss to Washington, quarterback Jared Goff fumbled on the half-inch line, and the Washington defense returned the fumble 100 yards the other way. In that same quarter, Goff lost a fumble on the Bears’ 25-yard line. On the next play, Washington converted that turnover into a touchdown. The next game against UCLA, Goff forced a pass deep down the field in the final minute of the game. That interception ended the game. And last week against Oregon, Goff fumbled in his team’s territory. Oregon started its possession at the Cal 38-yard line and managed to turn the short drive into three points.

The Bears are also sloppy in terms of penalties. Having committed 68 penalties for 606 total yards, Cal is ranked No. 118 in the nation. Last year, the Bears ranked No. 116. Ultimately, the blame for that has to fall on the coaches.

Dykes also has to bear the brunt of the criticism for his timeout usage. Too often are the Bears burning timeouts instead of saving them for late-game situations.

Against UCLA, Cal scored a touchdown in the second half that put it up a point over UCLA. Despite the obvious need to go for two in order to stretch the lead to a field goal, the extra point unit trotted out to the field and Dykes called a timeout in order to get his offense back out there. Against Oregon, the Bears called a second-quarter timeout before a punt. In the third quarter, with Oregon facing a fourth and 11, Cal again called a timeout.

Can Cal beat Oregon State even if it continues its sloppy play? Sure. But when considering how awful the defense is, the Bears’ margin of error in nearly every game is slim.

If the Bears don’t manage to win in Corvallis, they’ll have to win either at USC or against Stanford at home and then knock off a BYU team that is in free fall after losing quarterback Taysom Hill for the season. In other words, the Bears better beat Oregon State if they intend to go bowling.

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