It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the California Golden Bears. Not after a 3-0 kick-start to what was shaping up to be a promising NCAA football season.
But since that sparkling run to put them in the AP Top 25, the Bears (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) have been barely there, losing three straight — all Pac-12 affairs — including a Week 7 no-show against the previously winless UCLA Bruins in a 37-7 home-turf shocker.
Cal is out to put a halt to the football freefall Saturday at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore., where it’ll take on the host Oregon State Beavers, the only other Pac-12 team that’s winless in conference action.
Oregon State (1-5, 0-3) takes on the Golden Bears with just one win to its name — that coming at home in a 48-25 Week 2 victory over an FCS squad, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds.
But the Beavers are heading into the contest off a bye-week after getting beat up by the Washington State Cougars in a 56-37 Pac-12 contest in Week 6.
California at Oregon State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: California -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cal hold on to the ball?
It’s been a rough go for Cal during its three conference losses. Offensively, the Bears have been a mess, scoring the fewest points (48) during games involving Pac-12 foes.
That’s not simply because the offense is having trouble moving the ball but because it’s having trouble holding onto the ball. During last week’s loss to UCLA, Cal QB Brandon McIlwain connected on 22-of-40 passes for 168 yards, but most noticeable about the pedestrian outing was that the sophomore quarterback committed four turnovers, including two fumbles.
And it wasn’t just a one-off for the 6-foot-1 passer. McIlwain has committed 11 fumbles in three conference games, including three lost fumbles, and he has tossed seven interceptions since taking over as the team’s starting QB last month.
All total, the team has turned the pigskin over 14 times in three conference games, including 11 of them in the second half. And five of those turnovers have turned into defensive scores by the opposition.
That’s a whack-load of points allowed coming off errors for the Bears, making it tough for themselves on the scoreboard.
2. See Jermar run
He’s a true freshman. And a truly spectacular one, at that. Oregon State RB Jermar Jefferson is running amok in the Pac-12, leading all conference players in rushing yardage, touchdowns and 100-yard games. His 865 yards in six games puts him fourth nationally in rushing yardage, and Jefferson is also fourth in the FBS in scoring with 72 points on 12 touchdowns heading into Week 8.
Even in a loss, Jefferson was solid, rolling up 138 yards and four TDs on 25 carries against Washington State. His only glitch vs. Wazzu was a fumble.
Since Jefferson is the Beavers’ best weapon, California must find a way to stop — or at least slow down — the running back.
While the Golden Bears have fared well in stopping the run, the last outing didn’t follow that form, as UCLA RB Joshua Kelly went off on the Cal defense for 157 yards and three majors.
Whichever way it falls in Week 8 for the Bears against the run is likely to determine the outcome of the game.
3. Jefferson or bust?
Sure he’s the best weapon for Oregon State. But if Jefferson is the only weapon for the Beavers, they could be in big trouble. The quarterback situation for the home side could be up in the air come game-time, with their Nos. 1 and 2 helmsmen heading into the week hampered by injury.
Starter Conor Blount suffered a shoulder injury midway through the final quarter against Washington State and did not return to the game. The sophomore QB says he’s ready to face California, but that’ll be a coach’s decision.
Meanwhile, senior QB Jake Luton, who was the main man behind center in Week 3 action for the Beavers before suffering a high-ankle sprain, said earlier this week that he’s close to returning to game action.
Whoever gets the call may benefit from a few wacky twists in Oregon State’s playbook, given its special-teams strangeness from before the bye.
Against Wazzu, the Beavers pulled out all the stops, using a few trick plays to try and trip up their opponent. The strangest one saw a kick returner trying to hide from the Cougars by lying face down in the end zone, which worked, as he took a lateral on the play and gained 55 yards. They also tried an onside kick that resembled a soccer cross.
Whatever works, we guess.
It’s the homecoming game for the Beavers. And what better way to celebrate than with a victory — a conference one, at that.
The way it’s gone for the Golden Bears in recent weeks, that wouldn’t seem to be a stretch, even though they were ranked in the AP Top 25 a mere month ago for the first time since 2015.
But that was before conference play and a spate of turnovers completely u-turned their season. If they can cut those down, that will go a long way to turning the season around once more.
Furthermore, McIlwain is a dual-threat QB, and the Bears' attack should be able to move the ball via the ground on an Oregon State team that can’t stop the run at all and is one of the worst defenses in the entire country, allowing the most points in Pac-12 action (143).
But that Beaver offense just seems a mess these days. In fact, the only constant — in the positive — appears to be the legs of Jefferson propelling the home team.
So is it another four-touchdown game for the Oregon State running back? This time in a win?