In late October, despite a pandemic, the Pac-12 improbably scheduled to play football. Few knew what to expect and few could have anticipated the results of the ongoing season, but hope, for the Bears and Ducks alike, remained high at the start.
Oregon and Cal were picked to finish first and second in the Pac-12’s preseason poll, respectively. The Ducks were a dark horse for the College Football Playoff and the Bears were a dark horse for the Pac-12 title. Each program was riding a promising 2019 to more ambitious goals this season — one month ago, it was easy for Oregon and Cal fan bases to circle this matchup as a potentially earth-shattering one.
Instead, this game will feel more hollow. The Ducks and the Bears are riding losses that dented their lofty preseason goals. Both were defeated by their respective rivals — Oregon falling at Oregon State to eliminate it from playoff consideration and Cal suffering a heartbreaking loss against Stanford to fall to 0-3 for the first time ever under head coach Justin Wilcox.
The dramatic, late-game disappointments these two teams suffered against their archnemeses are similar, too, as each had its losses confirmed in the final minute of its contest. The Bears had a game-tying extra point blocked, while the Ducks gave up a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal play. But the dissatisfaction with their respective seasons is less similar.
While Oregon is likely out of contention for a national championship, it is still possible for the Ducks to make the Pac-12 championship game and extract a semblance of success.
Cal’s 0-3 start has been disappointing to fans, players and coaches. The team’s three losses have come against schools that are surely not the cream of the conference’s crop. Poor play, particularly on special teams, has been at the root of the Bears’ last two losses. The blue and gold have also averaged two turnovers per game, double their rate from 2019.
“We have to coach better and give them the tools so that they can go out and be successful in the games,” said Wilcox of his special teams unit; he later referred specifically to his team’s blocked extra point against Stanford. “All of us would agree that an extra point should be a high percentage play for the kicking team.”
Such errors have proven costly — Cal has now lost consecutive games where it gained more yardage than its opponents. Six of the nine scoring drives the Bears have allowed in those contests totaled less than 50 yards, and five of those drives — a cumulative total of 35 points — started in Cal territory.
There is still reason for Cal faithful to hold out hope, however. The Bears have endured restrictions and quarantine procedures due to several positive COVID-19 tests, as well as a shortened camp, which have made it difficult to practice normally. More practices and reps have resulted in improvement. The blue and gold defense was abysmal in the season opener against UCLA, giving up more than 30 points and 200 rushing yards, but it has since shaped up, finding ways to create turnovers and stop the bleeding.
Take away the shanks, blocks, muffs and long returns — the special teams unit’s errors — and Cal has performed well on defense in its past two contests. The Bears allowed scoring drives on just 20% of all drives opponents started in their own half for a total of just 20 points against the Beavers and Cardinal.
The offense, too, has evolved over the course of this season. There were growing pains against UCLA — implementing a new offensive scheme in a shortly planned game resulted in just 176 total yards of offense — but Cal has averaged 415 yards of offense over the past two games. In 2019, the Bears averaged just 328 yards per game.
Quarterback Chase Garbers threw for more than 300 yards for only the second time in his career. Wide receivers Kekoa Crawford and Makai Polk have emerged as dependable options — both have surpassed 100 receiving yards.
Running backs Christopher Brown Jr., Marcel Dancy and Damien Moore have all had their moments. Brown came back from an injury to punch in a touchdown against Stanford, Dancy had a brilliant performance against Oregon State and Moore, a freshman, ran for more than 100 yards against Stanford.
Still, mistakes are easier to discount statistically than literally. They have quite literally cost Cal two games and will definitely cost it another if it is unable to mitigate them.
“It takes everything, it takes all four quarters and it takes executing in every phase of the game — offense, defense, special teams,” said linebacker Kuony Deng after his team’s loss against Stanford. “We’re a good football team, but we haven’t put it all together.”
Cal will need to be more than just complete to beat Oregon. The Ducks, despite their latest loss, are still this conference’s premier program, and they lead the Pac-12 in total offense.
An Oregon player features among the conference’s top four in passing, rushing and receiving yards. Quarterback Tyler Shough may not have the national attention of his predecessor, current Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, but he’s still tossed for 1,158 yards and 10 touchdowns. Shough has also racked up more rushing yards than Cal’s leading rusher, Moore, and is nowhere near the center of the Ducks’ run attack.
CJ Verdell and Travis Dye have split reps out of the backfield, and still, each averages more than 80 yards a game. The dynamic duo is bookended by Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who has been the short-yardage back and contributed three touchdowns. Five players, led by wide receivers Devon Williams and Jaylon Redd, have caught for more than 100 yards.
Oregon has not been as magnificent defensively, ranking in the Pac-12’s bottom third in both passing and rushing defense while giving up nearly 30 points a game. Recent performances against UCLA and Oregon State showed that the Ducks are susceptible to hiccups on both sides of the ball.
But the Bears have not been any better in the “hiccups” department. Oregon will likely be the best team Cal has faced this season. Wilcox’s team has had a week to put mistakes behind and put forward its best performance of the season to win its first game this fall. The pieces are there — now the Bears must complete their puzzle.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].