With star wide receiver Chad Hansen out after suffering an ankle injury against Oregon State two weeks ago, the Cal football team looked to be in trouble in what should have been an easy matchup against a slow-roasting Ducks squad.
By the end of the fourth quarter, the game was set to go into overtime after the Bears let a 21-0 slip by. Cal looked ready to lose to the Pac-12’s worst team and, potentially, mount a challenge for that title.
But quarterback Davis Webb, who had already thrown five touchdowns, was able to find Bug Rivera for a crucial 12 yards in the first overtime before running it in himself. In the second overtime, despite penalties wiping out Cal’s chances for a touchdown, Webb found Demetris Robertson to give kicker Matt Anderson an easy opportunity to take the lead. He nailed the kick, which ended up being the game-winner after the defense picked off the Ducks to seal the deal.
This matchup looked like a classic Bears’ letdown (see: Last Game, Cal), but they managed to eat some foie gras. So how did that happen?
While it’s easy to say there’s nothing to be taken from this win given Oregon’s 2016 collapse, there are still lessons to be learned. The balanced offense — 61 passes versus 57 runs — is something the Bears should aim for in just about every game, even when Hansen returns.
Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson excelled against Oregon and, though the Ducks’ defensive wings are clipped, should be used in a similar role for the rest of the season. When Webb played with an injured hand against Oregon State two weeks ago, the Cal offense’s engine didn’t start revving until the Bears turned to Watson and Muhammad.
Even when the car decided to take to a different road Friday — the passing game — the Bears didn’t ride off a cliff, Thelma and Louise style. Coming into the Oregon matchup, Hansen had been on the receiving end of 32 percent of Webb’s completions. But without its number one option, Cal spread the ball around to the receivers that were the focus of so much hype going into the season.
Ten different Bears had receptions with no one getting the ball more than Vic Wharton III, who caught it seven times. This sets up a model Cal should replicate even when Hansen returns. Though he was piling up ridiculous stat lines every week, the Bears’ offense was becoming ever more predictable as opponents realized Hansen was getting the ball on every important down.
While it was always evident that relying on a single receiver wouldn’t be enough for the whole season, the win against Oregon provided clear evidence that the Bears have a whole slew of talented receivers. Now, it is time for head coach Sonny Dykes to turn to these receivers not just in times of need but as part of the initial plan.
Wharton III in particular stood out against the Ducks as a good option in the middle of the field, a long underutilized aspect of the Cal offense. Webb’s accuracy in that area has long been questionable, but not attempting to use those areas of the field fails to hold the defense accountable for defending them. That’s like making a car that doesn’t turn left. It makes no sense.
So the Bears need to take the game plan from the Oregon game as a learning experience. Treating it as a fluke rather than one to take lessons from is a recipe for disaster. If the Bears want to win any of their remaining games — not a given when looking at the quality of their remaining opponents — learning to adapt after the successes of Friday’s game will be crucial.