Cal, Modster search for redemption against high-flying No. 13 Oregon

Sunny Shen/Staff

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Winning over a fan base is not easy. It may take an entire season of consistent success before respect is earned. You do one thing wrong, though, and many will call for your head before the final whistle even blows.

In quarterback Devon Modster’s case, just over two quarters of play was all Cal fans needed to see before many gave up hope on the entire season after an injury to starter Chase Garbers. But every unfortunate situation comes with a silver lining, and in this case, Modster will get the chance to redeem himself against one of the nation’s best teams in No. 13 Oregon.

“We all know he’s plenty capable. We don’t feel like there’s too much we have to do to get him there, because he’s been there and he’s done it,” said Cal offensive lineman Jake Curhan. “There’s plenty of confidence in what he’ll be able to do.”

Leading the charge on the other side in Eugene will be gunslinging quarterback Justin Herbert, who doesn’t need much of an introduction to any fans who follow college football. After all, he decided to return to Oregon after passing on being a sure-fire top-5 pick had he declared for the 2019 NFL draft. The senior can do a little bit of everything and, in just four games, has already thrown 14 touchdowns without a single interception.

“He’s a really talented guy,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “He’s big, he’s athletic. He can make all the throws — it’s a great challenge for us. Those are the kind of guys you want to play against.”

Herbert’s favorite target, tight end Jacob Breeland, has caught five of those touchdowns and is increasing his chances of joining his quarterback as a first-round pick.

“Down at the goal line, if guys don’t have good eye discipline, tight ends will slip out of there,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter of keeping Breeland out of the end zone. “It starts with awareness, execution and eye discipline. It’s trying to drill our guys to understand what their offense is trying to do to us down there.”

The Bears have a lot more to worry about though, as that duo is just the tip of a massive iceberg of offensive talent. Running behind possibly the Pac-12’s best offensive line will be the dual-headed monster of CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who crushed the Cal defense for a combined 221 rushing yards in California Memorial Stadium last September.

While Oregon is known for its high-flying offense, the Ducks’ defense has arguably been even more dominant than Herbert and company this season — they’ve allowed just 10.5 points and 262.8 yards per game, both of which are first in the Pac-12 and top-10 in the nation.

It will be imperative for offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin to engineer a quick start for the Bears, as Oregon has held opponents to an astonishing 40 consecutive first-half drives without a touchdown — yes, forty. The streak, which dates back to 2018, conveys the importance for Cal not to fall behind early, which ended up being story in the Bears’ 24–42 loss against the Ducks last season.

“Those guys are extremely athletic in a lot of spots,” Baldwin said. “Windows are going to close, holes are going to close in the run game. You might think you have the edge and they’re going to get there. They’re impressive — the numbers don’t lie. We got our work cut out for us.”

The unit is headlined by linebacker Troy Dye, who currently leads all active Power-5 football players with 338 career tackles. Safety Jevon Holland will lead the secondary after a freshman season in which he finished second in the conference in interceptions behind Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins.

The Ducks’ pass rush is no joke either, currently sitting at eighth in the country in sacks per game. The unit is so deep that freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeoux, who was a consensus five-star and the No. 1 rated national recruit, is currently a second-stringer on the loaded Oregon defensive line.

The Bears’ defense will also get a chance at redemption, as they are coming off a game in which missed tackles and blown assignments allowed Arizona State to run rampant in the second half. Assuming Cal makes a bowl game, linebacker Evan Weaver is on pace to break the NCAA all-time record for total tackles in a season, and he will be counted on to make plenty of them Saturday evening against a speedy Oregon offense.

Autzen Stadium will be familiar territory for several members of the Cal coaching staff, including Wilcox, who earned a second-team All-Pac-10 award as a member of the Ducks’ secondary in 1999. The Bears’ head coach, though, is only focused on one thing: getting back in the win column.

“It was a great experience in my life, but this is not about me — this is about the Cal Bears,” Wilcox said.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].