To mix metaphors, no good news goes unpunished. Cal football is ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since Jared Goff reigned supreme over Memorial Stadium. This Saturday, the No. 24 Bears are playing host to a peeved No. 19 Oregon team which is in serious need of a conference win, has a Heisman candidate under center and has won eight of the last nine games in this rivalry. Topping last year’s 3-0 opening certainly isn’t going to come easy for Cal.
In the aftermath of Cal’s rise in the rankings and the Ducks’ embarrassing loss to Stanford last week, this game is taking on more importance than usual for the Bears’ first Pac-12 matchup of the season. Now, the early bye week that was the cause for much consternation last week among fans seems to have fortunately come at a crucial juncture.
“There will be more noise — that’s one of the things we talked about,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “But you control what we can control … so when we get to the game, it doesn’t feel different.”
Oregon’s loss last week makes this game pivotal for its Pac-12 record, so the Bears can bet on the Ducks coming out with their highest degree of focus and aggressiveness. Of course, it was aggressiveness that left the Cardinal with a chance to embarrass Oregon, so perhaps that’s not as dire for Cal as it seems.
Regardless, the Duck who has the least to regret from last week’s debacle is wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, who exploited Stanford’s defense to the tune of 14 receptions and 239 yards. He had been quiet in Oregon’s first three games of the season, but he closed out last season with consecutive 100-yard games, so he’s clearly becoming an issue for opposing defenses.
“We’ll mix it up,” Wilcox said. “Whether we’re playing man or zone or post defense or split safety, you can do certain things to try to steer the ball in different directions, but it’s going to be a team effort.”
The man delivering Mitchell the ball is junior quarterback Justin Herbert, who is already being discussed as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. A family friend of Wilcox’s, Justin Herbert will be dealing with the Cal head coach on the field seriously for the first time, as he was knocked out of this matchup early in 2017.
“The more time you have to study them, they’re a scary offense,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “You’ve got a veteran quarterback who’s an NFL (type) guy who can make all the throws, yet he’s big and can run.”
With that sort of production, the Bears will need to put points on the scoreboard as well and not be content hanging back and relying on their defense, which has been the case in the first three weeks. Part of that issue has been senior running back Patrick Laird’s harsh regression to the mean after bursting onto the scene last season.
Wilcox has expressed confidence that Laird’s production will get back on track, but that may be a tough order against Oregon. Cal’s starting tailback is currently averaging less than three yards per carry, and the only team that managed to hold him under that number last season was the Ducks. It will be no easier this time around as Oregon has been a top five defense against the run so far this season, with opposing backs only averaging a shade more than two yards per attempt.
“We didn’t execute as well as we would have liked, and they played really aggressive,” Wilcox said. “They put a lot of hats in the run front, and we weren’t able to create enough explosive (plays) too loosen them up. … We’re a different team now and so are they.”
If Cal is going to prove it deserves to stay in the top 25, the Bears certainly need to prove they’re a different team today.