Cal football hoping to get offense rolling, defense back on track in Corvallis

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For a team that hasn’t won a conference road game in three years, Cal football should be delighted to be leaving the confines of California Memorial Stadium, which became decidedly less friendly after the players got booed off the field during homecoming against UCLA last week.

The good news is that their upcoming opponent, Oregon State, should be a gift-wrapped win. The bad news is that Cal seems to have a habit of blowing those, and if the road conference loss streak continues and the Bears return to Berkeley next time around with a losing overall record, the crowds are only going to get harsher.

“We’re halfway through the story of the 2018 team, and the story has been a little up and down,” defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. “We’re weathering the storm at this point, but all good stories have some drama.”

The Beavers are an abysmal program of late, having gone 8-34 over the last four years. Their defense is almost comically porous, having surrendered an average of 45 points over the last four weeks. But for a Cal offense that simply cannot seem to get on track this season, there’s no promise that they can make Oregon State pay on that side of the ball.

Brandon McIlwain, for all his athleticism and the faith the coaching staff seems to have in him, has had truly nightmarish moments, and his penchant for turning the ball over is a major culprit in the offense’s inability to ever establish a rhythm. His 11 turnovers over the past three games are hard to comprehend, and it’ll be tough to beat any team until he cleans up his play.

“It’s never going to be acceptable to give up the ball and have turnovers, and that’s going to be our focus,” McIlwain said after the loss to UCLA. “That’s what we’re going to continue to work on, and it’s now or never. It’s time to make a change, to find a way to pick it up and face Oregon State.”

New Beavers head coach Jonathan Smith, who took over a position that Beau Baldwin was initially connected to in the press, at least has his squad playing respectably on offense. Oregon State is currently in the upper half of the nation in offensive efficiency for the first time since 2014.

True freshman running back Jermar Jefferson has been a revelation for the Beavers thus far. He’s tallied a shocking 932 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in just six games. Oregon State’s initial lead back was injured in the season opener against Ohio State, and ever since getting his chance, Jefferson has been a pure menace.

“He’s strong, really, really smooth,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. “One of those guys it looks really easy for. Kind of a glider, but he goes through tackles. He’s always going forward.”

At 5’10”, the 18-year-old doesn’t compare to former OSU great Steven Jackson in stature (Jackson stands at 6’3”) but is more than holding his own in production. Jefferson spoke with Jackson in Corvallis last week, and considering the fact that Jackson averaged just shy of 240 yards a game against Cal in his college career, that may portend trouble for the Bears.

After beginning 3-0 in 2017 and 2018, it was fair to be optimistic that this year’s edition could do better than last year’s 2-7 finish. If the Bears can’t shake the specter of road Pac-12 games and nab a win in Corvallis this weekend, finishing the season 5-7 would look like a miracle rather than a disappointing benchmark.

“There’s angst, which is natural, being in the position we’re in,” Wilcox said. “We’ve got to play ourselves out of it. …The only way to get that feeling out is to go out and play well.”

Andrew Wild covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.