Coming off a forgettable October highlighted by a three-game losing streak, Cal football will look to turn things around when the team flies to Eugene, Oregon, to take on the Ducks.
With only four more games on the regular-season schedule, the Bears will need to start getting back to their winning ways if they want to climb back to the top of the Pac-12 North rankings. And with the Utah, USC and UCLA games over with, this is Cal’s chance to look dominant again.
But this week’s game against Oregon presents many challenges. Although the Ducks have had their fair share of struggles this season, the talent they have on the roster consists of weapons similar to ones the Bears have been struggling against all season.
Throughout the year, Cal has had a tough time playing against offenses with physical running backs in a high-tempo offense, which is Oregon’s strength. In addition, it hasn’t been easy for the Bears to establish a running threat in order to take pressure off quarterback Jared Goff, and the offense has regressed significantly in the past month.
The player the Bears need to look out for is running back Royce Freeman. With 1,109 rushing yards for 11 touchdowns on 6.7 yards a carry and 216 receiving yards for two more touchdowns, Freeman has dominated this year. Oregon’s playbook does a good job of giving Freeman one-on-one opportunities in the open field, where he can use his speed to get away from tacklers. And even when defenders can get their hands on him, Freeman, at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, is one of the stronger and bigger backs in the country and can get lots of yards after the contact.
If Cal can’t limit Freeman’s yardage, it’s going to be increasingly harder throughout the game for the defense to get off the field. As evidenced by the game against Utah, when Devontae Booker ran for 222 yards, the running game can wear the Bears’ defense out, especially when the fourth quarter hits.
Against Oregon, it will be especially crucial because of the Ducks’ pace. Instead of trying to out-think its opponents with play calls, Oregon looks to outrun them. By snapping the ball as quickly as they can, the Ducks look to keep firing until the defense falls behind on one play. And that’s usually how Oregon finds success.
Because of this, Cal’s defense is going to be seeing more snaps than most other games, and if the Ducks are running the ball effectively, it’s going to be a long day for the Bears.
“Oregon is built on speed and built on confusing their opponents,” said Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “We got some experience coming back who remember the tempo of the game last year. It’s a matter of us executing our calls.”
Although Oregon’s offense is explosive, Cal’s defense has proved capable of limiting big plays and giving the Bears a chance to win ball games.
The main factor Saturday will be whether the offense can find its groove, as its performance up to this point this year has been subpar.
Goff has shown flashes of high-level quarterbacking this year, but consistency has been an issue. One of Cal’s strengths on offense is that when a receiver has one-on-one coverage, it is almost a guaranteed big play because of Goff’s accuracy. But in order for that to happen, Goff needs time in the pocket.
Goff has been under pressure all season, and often, opposing defenses aren’t even blitzing. In order for Goff to connect on those one-on-one opportunities, he’s going to need a few seconds in the pocket, and he hasn’t had that.
This isn’t uncommon. Lots of teams struggle with pass protection, but that’s why some teams run first. Running threats keep defenses guessing, and defensive linemen can’t pass-rush as aggressively. And that’s what Cal has been trying to work on.
“We’ve run it probably well enough for us to have chances to win ball games,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “It hadn’t always been pretty. We’ve had to grind through it in some ways, but we need to continue to run it better.”
It’s going to come down to whether the Bears can fix their own mistakes. Cal’s past three losses have been because one part of the team hasn’t performed at the level it needs to. Against Oregon, the Bears need to make sure they can put up a complete game and not give the Ducks a chance to capitalize on Cal’s weaknesses.