On Friday night, two very similar teams will take the field at Memorial Stadium. Both the Oregon and Cal football teams bring to mind the ideas of a high-powered, fast-paced offense, and a questionable and at-times lackluster defense. Both teams are coming off a bye week after a tough loss. But more than that, both of these teams are suffering from what appears to be general frustration.
The Bears are in the seemingly less bad situation. They stand at 3-3 with two impressive home victories against then-ranked opponents. The Bears could realistically be undefeated, but late game mistakes against San Diego State and Arizona State prevented that, and an all-around poor performance against Oregon State has left the Bears sitting in mediocrity. But two weeks ago, not only did Cal become the Beavers’ first conference victory in 23 months, they did so in truly embarrassing fashion. Entering the fourth quarter down 17, they managed to come back only to lose in overtime.
In addition to that, head coach Sonny Dykes decided to stick with a quarterback with an injured throwing hand instead of giving a healthy backup a shot. Without the usual high-scoring offense led by Webb, the Bears ineptitude on defense was only amplified by their
No. 127 (out of 128 teams) ranked run defense allowing 474 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. But worst of all for the Bears was the ankle injury sustained by star wide receiver Chad Hansen, whom Webb seemed lost without. Luckily for the Bears, both Hansen and Webb are projected to play against Oregon.
Now remember, this is the seemingly less bad situation.
While the Bears have lost three games, all of which they could have won, the Ducks are coming off arguably their worst loss in school history. Before the bye week, they surrendered a whopping 70 points while only putting up 21 to No. 5 Washington. Not only was this the second-most points allowed in program history for Oregon, it was the first loss to the Huskies in 13 years.
Less than two seasons ago, the Ducks were vying for the national championship.
The Ducks’ defense ranks No. 125 in points allowed per game, No. 118 in rush yards allowed per game and No. 117 against the pass ─ all of these low ranks can be attributed to transitioning to a new 4-3 defense from a 3-4. Oregon is starting four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen, and without a half-decent offense to bolster the defensive holes, the Ducks are struggling to get off the ground, let alone fly.
But if things couldn’t get worse, the loss to the Huskies was only the latest in a string of events which has caused players and coaches from inside the Ducks’ camp to question the motivation and drive of some of the players.
First, head coach Mark Helfrich likened his team’s loss to Colorado to a trainwreck, and described his team’s performance early in the game as “malaise.” The following week, the players held a players-only meeting to try to resolve complacency issues among some of the younger players.
“Some of the young guys are so much caught in the hype,” said Oregon junior defensive tackle Austin Maloata.
But instead of the meeting turning things around, a road loss to Washington State and then the crushing defeat to the Huskies only put the Ducks into a further downward spiral. This culminated in Helfrich speaking out against his players’ “entitlement” and senior offensive lineman Cameron Hunt estimating to the Register-Guard that 30 to 40 percent of the team doesn’t care about winning or losing.
Surely the bye week will help these two teams bounce back, but realistically, fans shouldn’t expect much from either team. Cal is a 3-point favorite, but if anything about Oregon’s motivation problems is true, the Bears could just as well be 30-point favorites. Then again, it would be like the Bears to let down their fans again this season.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].