It’s deja vu for the 2015 Cal football team.
A year ago, the Bears were 5-4 after they began to fall apart following a 4-1 start. Cal had just notched a 45-31 road win against Oregon State, which halted a three-game losing streak that had dimmed any chances of a bowl game. But with another trifecta of losses to bookend the season, the Bears would have to shelve their hopes of going bowling for another year.
Now, Cal finds itself at another crossroads of sorts, clutching a 5-4 record and watching as a midseason skid is jeopardizing its season yet again. The Bears (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) will welcome Oregon State (2-7, 0-5 Pac-12) to Memorial Stadium on Saturday for a rare night game in the hopes of securing that elusive sixth win.
“Our players are in a pretty good frame of mind right now coming off four losses,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “We’ve been honest and realistic with them in our evaluations of what we have to improve.”
The Beavers will travel to Berkeley on the heels of a brutal 41-0 home loss to UCLA, hoping that the embattled Bears will finally hand them a conference victory. Oregon State — which hasn’t won a game since Sept. 19 — has struggled under first-year head coach Gary Andersen, dropping its last six games by an average of 22.7 points and scoring only 14.5 in that span. Nine games into the season, the Beavers are bringing up the rear in the Pac-12 in time of possession, third-down conversions, passing offense and total offense.
But more than anything else, perhaps Oregon State has been hampered by uncertainty at quarterback. Freshman Seth Collins is expected to miss his third straight game after sustaining a left knee injury earlier this season, and his replacement, redshirt freshman Nick Mitchell, will be facing Cal’s defense after tallying 84 passing yards and three picks against UCLA. Inconsistency at the most crucial position has done no favors for a floundering Beaver offense.
“You can’t grow as fast as you’d like to because reps are so important for that position,” Dykes said. “The only way you get good at playing quarterback is by playing quarterback. There’s really not another way to simulate it other than getting into a game and playing.”
Collins and Mitchell have primarily been throwing to sophomore Jordan Villamin and junior Victor Bolden, who operates mostly as a slot receiver. The Beavers’ third-leading receiver, redshirt freshman Datrin Guyton was dismissed from the program Monday for a “violation of athletic department and team rules,” leaving an already mediocre offense in worse shape than before.
Oregon State isn’t faring much better on the other side of the ball, ranking ninth in total defense and 10th in rushing defense in the Pac-12. The Beavers, however, are proving at least serviceable against the pass, surrendering an average of 226.9 passing yards per game. Oregon State, which switched to a 3-4 base defense this season, can be expected to rely a good deal on nickel and dime packages against the always pass-happy Bears, despite losing a handful of defensive backs to injury over the past few weeks.
With only three games left in the season, a depleted Oregon State team will be Cal’s best opportunity to finally be bowl-game eligible and to finish the season with at least a .500 record.
“When we get on the field that if we play well, we’re gonna win. We kind of expect to do that. That’s progress,” Dykes said. “When you get to that point as a program where you feel like every time you take the field you expect to win, that’s a good feeling.”