Oregon aims to bounce back in Pac-12 play against a surprise Cal team
An early inside track on the Pac-12 North escaped Oregon in Week 4, when the Ducks saw a 17-point lead against Stanford turn into an overtime loss. Another divisional loss doesn't erase Oregon's Pac-12 title chances entirely, but it puts the Ducks in a very precarious position going forward.
For Cal, Saturday night's home contest marks the beginning of Pac-12 play. The Golden Bears went undefeated in the regular season, including a Week 2 win over No. 20-ranked BYU. Cal jumped into the poll this week as well, sitting at No. 24.
No. 19 Oregon's visit to Berkeley is the team's first road game of 2018. The Ducks are winners in eight of the last nine against Cal, but lost in their last visit to Memorial Stadium two seasons ago.
Oregon at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Turnover battle
Giveaways gave away the game for Oregon its last time out. The Ducks coughed up possession three times against Stanford, while going without a forced turnover on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Justin Herbert was electric against the Cardinal, completing 78.8 percent of his pass attempts for 346 yards, but he also threw an interception; his fifth of the season.
Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter oversaw an immediate transformation in the Golden Bears' defense, which had been one of the worst in the nation, but looked great at times in 2017. This season, they're allowing 19.3 points per game in three outings. A key to Cal's success has been turnover generation. Defensive back Jaylinn Hawkins already boasts three interceptions, and Cal has seven takeaways as a team in total.
2. Dictating the pace
The 45 points Cal scored in its Week 3 rout over FCS opponent Idaho State equaled the Golden Bears' output in Weeks 1 and 2. This is a team under defensive-minded head coach (and former Oregon Duck) Justin Wilcox that doesn't mind grinding down the pace.
Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin employed one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football during his time as head coach at FCS Eastern Washington. The Eagles rolled with an up-tempo style and heavy emphasis on the pace. Cal is a much different story, with the Golden Bears going on the ground frequently: Three ball carriers have between 23 and 50 rushing attempts on the season, and a fourth — Marcel Dancy — came on in Week 3 to add yet another option. Meanwhile, Cal's primary quarterback, Chase Garbers, has attempted just 66 passes.
Cal may not have the weapons to get into a high-scoring affair with the Ducks. In addition to the big-armed Herbert at quarterback, the duo of C.J. Verdell and Tony Brooks-James at running back give the Ducks explosion in the running game. Whether by ground or air, this Oregon team is at its best when it's breaking off explosive plays. Last week is a great example.
Oregon led early thanks in part to a 53-yard Herbert pass to Dillon Mitchell, and a 48-yard Verdell run. The Ducks need to find ways to continuously create explosive plays, and force the Golden Bears into their tempo.
3. Break vs. heartbreak
Cal comes into Saturday's matchup off its bye week, having had the opportunity to rest and evaluate what worked and what didn't during its 3-0 start. Certainly in some ways, this should give the Golden Bears an edge. Conversely, Oregon played a physical opponent in a long, hard-hitting game. Win or lose, facing Stanford has a body-blow effect for any opponent the next week — look no further than USC, which turned around from a matchup with the Cardinal to get bludgeoned the next week at Texas.
There's also the impact of losing in such dramatic fashion. To see a lead whittle away and come up unsuccessful in overtime can either be a demoralizer, or a call to action. This week is the moment for head coach Mario Cristobal to put his signature on Oregon football and lead an inspired effort.
Cal's defeat of BYU is certainly impressive in hindsight. The Golden Bears proved they can outlast a physical, defensive-minded team and take advantage of question marks on offense. Oregon is an entirely different opponent. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has introduced a more smash-mouth approach on defense, but the Ducks can and will continue to push the pace when on offense.
If Oregon can get out to a fast start and dictate the tempo, Cal is much less equipped to rally than Stanford a week ago. The first few possessions should reveal much about both teams. This is Cal's opportunity to score a marquee win and announce itself as a Pac-12 title contender. Oregon can rebound in as much of a must-win scenario as a team can face in September. Expect the Ducks to answer the call.
Prediction: Oregon 35, Cal 28