Prospects of a Pac-12 Conference championship and perhaps the program's first Rose Bowl in almost 70 years took a big hit for Cal last Friday. Although the Golden Bears' home loss to Arizona State simply added them to the gumbo of one-loss teams through the season's first month, the most damage sustained wasn't on the scoreboard: It was in the loss of quarterback Chase Garbers to a shoulder injury.
With Garbers sidelined and the last undefeated team in the parity-rich Pac-12 now sporting a loss, Cal must regroup against one of the conference's toughest opponents.
Oregon came into the season with lofty ambitions for a Pac-12 title and perhaps a berth in the College Football Playoff. Both are still very much in play, despite losing a Week 1 game to Auburn that the Ducks had chances to put away. However, the latter goal evaporates with another loss. Oregon has been rolling since that defeat and aims to continue the momentum at the outset of the October slate.
Cal at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -18
When Cal Has the Ball
The driving factor in Cal's impressive start offensively was the improvement Chase Garbers made since 2018. Coming into the Arizona State game, he had thrown eight touchdowns against two interceptions; last season, he was picked off 10 times against 14 scores. Garbers' yards per attempt jumped significantly, from 5.8 to 8.3. With the multifaceted rushing attack of Christopher Brown and Marcel Dancy, Cal's offense looked the best it had since Beau Baldwin came on as coordinator two years ago.
UCLA transfer Devon Modster stepped in for Garbers in the second half last week and struggled to complete long and some intermediate passes. Timing and situation could certainly have factored into the issues, but the Oregon defense is a difficult matchup for a quarterback making his first start since 2017. The Ducks are talented both in the front seven with Troy Dye and Jordon Scott, as well as emerging freshman playmaker Kayvon Thibodeaux, and the secondary is loaded with Deommodore Lenoir, Thomas Graham Jr., and Jevon Holland.
Cal's best bet offensively will be converting opportunities created by the defense and special teams, either through turnovers or flipping the field, into points.
When Oregon Has the Ball
Although his Heisman Trophy buzz is surprisingly modest, Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert is having one of the best seasons of any player in the country. Herbert has completed 96-of-129 passes for 1,127 yards. He has 14 touchdowns and not a single interception. His completion percentage is in the same neighborhood as those of Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, and Joe Burrow.
Herbert's play is the combination of a four-year maturation into a truly elite passer, and operating behind one of the best offensive lines in college football. A deep running back rotation has yet to really stand out behind that front, however. It's especially challenging against a defense like Cal's, which has held opponents to 3.9 yards per carry on the season. The Golden Bears have a name worthy of Heisman buzz in his own right, linebacker Evan Weaver, who is assured to be flying to the ball on every snap.
Freshman running back Sean Dollars is an intriguing X-factor. He scored on a 63-yard run against Montana, and he adds some additional electricity to a five-man backfield. Although Cal is great against the run, and held Eno Benjamin to 3.45 yards per carry last week, Benjamin did get into the end zone three times. Oregon needs to find a way to replicate those opportunistic runs in a similar fashion.
WIth Garbers in the lineup, Cal looked like it might very well be the best team in the Pac-12: stifling defense, effective and complementary offense, reliable special teams. Cal coach Justin Wilcox's specialty is defense, and the Golden Bears will remain stout on that end, but last week's second half is proof that an inability to move the ball offensively can wear down a team's defense.
Expect a similar situation against Oregon. The Ducks offensive line pounding away for four quarters should lead to a breakthrough at some point. Look for a nip-and-tuck contest in the first half to turn into a two-score Ducks lead in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Oregon 28, Cal 13
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.