A right jab from No. 17 Arizona State sent Cal football staggering backward. A left uppercut from No. 12 Oregon left the blue and gold dazed. But fresh off a bye week and set for a date with a rebuilding opponent from the featherweight class, it’s fair to say that the Bears are amped to stand tall in the center of the octagon.
The second half of Cal’s 2019 campaign begins with an ideal opportunity to get back on its feet after suffering two straight losses, as Oregon State (2-4, 1-2) visits UC Berkeley this Saturday for homecoming weekend.
“I thought the guys did a really nice job, mentally, staying plugged in,” said head coach Justin Wilcox of his team’s bye week. “Guys who were on the high-rep count … did a really good job of taking care of their bodies and getting rejuvenated.”
The Beavers, who temporarily rose to third in the Pac-12 North after a masterful offensive showing against UCLA two weeks ago, entered their own homecoming weekend with as much confidence as they’ve had in recent memory.
But against the defending South Division champion Utah, Oregon State lost its footing defending the run (256 rushing yards allowed) and converting on third downs (2 of 13). One drive after another, things went from bad to worse to flat-out ugly in Corvallis.
The final scorecards? Utes 52, Beavers 7, with Oregon State’s lone score coming with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter. The lopsided defeat saw Beavers quarterback Jake Luton end an interception-less start to the season, and starting tailback Artavis Pierce held to just 21 yards on the ground.
Prior to last weekend’s struggles, the Beavers had displayed significant progress across the board in 2019, with Luton taking full control of the offense. Firmly entrenched as the starter, the 6’7” redshirt senior fired 14 touchdowns in his team’s first five games without throwing an interception. While a 60% completion rate leaves plenty to be desired, Luton’s had the benefit of having a breakout star split out wide.
Junior Isaiah Hodgins has been nothing short of a superstar, leading Pac-12 receivers in receiving yards per game with 118.2 and co-leading with nine touchdown catches. His lone contest without a touchdown reception came against the Utes last week, but Hodgins still managed eight catches for 77 yards against a stout Utah secondary.
Luton and Hodgins have been dynamic, mirroring the explosive start to 2018 that fans saw last fall from now-sophomore running back Jermar Jefferson. While Jefferson has dealt with multiple injuries this season and was limited in last year’s affair against the Bears with an injury, Oregon State hopes to have its one-two punch of Pierce and Jefferson ready to rumble Saturday.
“They’re much improved from a year ago,” Wilcox said. “Offensively, they were scoring in the high 30s; the past game was the anomaly. (Hodgins) is a touch matchup and then they run the ball really well.”
After missing several key playmakers in its recent two losses to the Sun Devils and the Ducks, the Bears are optimistic that receiver Kekoa Crawford, tailback Marcel Dancy, left tackle Valentino Daltoso, among others will be back in action this week.
Dancy and Daltoso would be huge additions to a lineup that will face a defense that ranks dead last at stopping the run in the conference and struggled mightily against Utah’s Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley last weekend.
While the dam that is the Beavers defense largely withstood Stanford and UCLA’s playmakers, leaks in the system are beginning to show, and keeping the floodgates clamped shut the rest of the year may prove to be a challenge. The Beavers have now surrendered 34.0 points per contest to its six opponents in 2019, albeit against a tough schedule.
For the fourth straight year, Oregon State will prepare to square off with a different Cal quarterback. In 2018, Chase Garbers started and received the majority of snaps under center, leading his team to a 49-7 wire-to-wire win over a struggling Oregon State program which won just three contests combined across 2017 and 2018.
With the reins of Cal’s offense now in the hands of redshirt junior Devon Modster, expect a healthy balance of conservative play-calling and deep shots down the field.
“Everyone can beat everyone, that’s just how it is,” said tight end Jake Tonges. “It’s going to come down to who can have more focus this week in practice and is up for the game and can play hard.”
Fight “night” in Berkeley officially begins at 11:30 a.m., a rare morning kickoff on the West Coast. Still, with both programs within striking distance of the Pac-12’s top powerhouses, it’s safe to say they’ll be fired up for Saturday’s game no matter what time it begins.