Only up from here: Cal vs. Oregon State preview

Photo of Christopher Brown at the Cal vs. UCLA football game
Meg Oliphant/KLC fotos/Courtesy

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Rock bottom is a place that has become all too familiar for many people this year. To be sure, the pain of economic hardship, the loss of loved ones, social and political unrest and countless other struggles amid the pandemic can hardly be compared to losing a football game.

But Cal went through the wringer this week with COVID-19 complications of its own. After having its game against ASU canceled, the Bears worked out a plan with UCLA (whose game against Utah was axed) and had about 43 hours to prepare for the matchup before shipping off to Los Angeles. Quarantined players endured the almost six-hour drive south on a bus before a bright and early call time of 5 a.m. Two key players were barred from playing for undisclosed reasons, the defensive line hadn’t practiced in nearly two weeks, the rest of the team hadn’t practiced against the defensive line and the offense had yet to play a game under its new coordinator Bill Musgrave. Cal’s first game of the season was predicated on a week spent fighting with the city of Berkeley for permission to play and a two-week stretch of practice without an entire position group that was in quarantine because of a single positive COVID-19 test.

The odds were clearly not in the Bears’ favor at the Rose Bowl this weekend. But for as many explanations as there are for the 10-34 bottom line against the Bruins, the Cal team refuses to place blame anywhere but on itself.

“It’s so easy to drop every excuse in the book right now — short week, they have a game under their belt and we don’t, new offense,” said Cal offensive lineman and team captain Michael Saffell after the game. “But I’ve always been proud of this group coming back, blocking out the noise and getting back for another week, and we’ve got another tough opponent against Oregon State coming up. Of course, 2020 is a weird year, but it’s no excuse for how we played today.”

The good thing about rock bottom is that the only direction to go is up, and that’s exactly where Cal is headed — literally. The Bears are making the journey north by northwest to meet the Beavers in Corvallis. There, they will play their second game of the season against an opponent that has been on this season’s slate from its very first iteration.

Oregon State sits at 0-2 for the season, but the flimsy record is hardly a reflection of the Beavers’ hard-fought losses to Washington and Washington State and the skyward trajectory of the program.

Tristan Gebbia, the Beavers’ starting quarterback, is flaunting 414 total passing yards and a 62.5% completion rate coming into Saturday’s matchup. The redshirt junior, whom WestCoastCFB ranked the No. 2 quarterback in the conference this week, clearly poses a threat through the air, dangerous considering the dismal tackling Cal displayed against the Bruins — UCLA notched 196 passing and 244 rushing yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

OSU running back Jermar Jefferson has wasted no time establishing himself as an absolute terror in the backfield for the Beavers. The 217-pound junior ranks second in the Pac-12 for rushing yards with 253 of his own and has a flashy knack for putting points on the board, such as with his dazzling 54-yard touchdown against Washington State or 39-yard completion in the same game to put the Beavers ahead of the Cougars. Inside linebacker Avery Roberts is also a force to be reckoned with, as he leads the conference with 22 tackles. Together, these conference-leading stat collectors are a testament to Oregon State’s depth of talent, which will certainly give a less-practiced Cal a run for its money.

However, the Beavers have yet to prove themselves as threatening in pass coverage, a weakness that Cal could exploit if Musgrave lets quarterback Chase Garbers deal. Despite last season’s flashes of offensive finesse, the Bears could hardly stitch together a competent aerial attack against UCLA and relied more on running the ball into a brick wall of Bruins, resulting in more three-and-outs than you could shake a stick at and just 54 rushing yards. When Garbers let fly, he only had a 54.5% completion rate and never fully sunk into a rhythm, but it at least looked more promising than the run game.

“We had some opportunities to get guys on the ground to create some longer down and distances, which the advantage starts to shift to the defense, and we didn’t do that very well,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, who spent three years of his tenure remodeling the team’s defense, after the UCLA loss. “We missed a significant amount of tackles, had a couple missed opportunities in there, and then the run game was going the wrong direction most of the day. I know our guys can play better, I know we can coach better and we’ll look forward to improving this week.”

The Bears kick off against the Beavers on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Corvallis. Whether or not Cal will spend a bit more time at the bottom will depend on how it treats the rock, but regardless, at some point, things will look up.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.