The California Golden Bears have lost two games in a row and five over their last six contests to fall to 4-5 overall. A 44-28 loss to Colorado dropped the Bears to just 1-5 in Pac-12 play, raising questions about whether or not the dominant 37-3 victory over Washington State was a fluke rather than a sign of significant improvement under new head coach Justin Wilcox.
However, Wilcox and the Bears have an opportunity to get back on track by hosting Oregon State at Memorial Stadium Saturday. The Beavers are 1-7 overall, 0-5 in conference action, and in the midst of a six-game losing streak, but the team has played much better under interim head coach Cory Hall. In Hall’s first game after replacing Gary Andersen, Oregon State gave Colorado everything it could handle before losing 36-33. Last week, the Beavers nearly upset Stanford at home on Thursday night, but fell 15-14 thanks to a last-second Cardinal touchdown.
Will Oregon State finally get over the hump and into the win column in Pac-12 play? Or will Cal take another step towards a surprising bowl bid?
Oregon State at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Network
Spread: Cal -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Oregon State RB Ryan Nall
Both Cal and Oregon State have solid running backs. Patrick Laird leads the Bears with 582 rushing yards and six touchdowns and Vic Enwere provides a secondary power option, accounting for 331 yards and four scores. The Beavers have options as well, including former Oregon standout Thomas Tyner and sophomore Artavis Pierce, but no one has had a bigger impact than Nall.
Putting the football in Nall’s hands gives the Beavers their best chance to win, which explains why Nall (above, right) has seen an increased workload over the last two games. Used as both a traditional running back and in the Wildcat, Nall has carried the ball an average of 21.5 times during the last two games. He averaged 12.4 carries and had no more than 16 attempts in any game over the first five to open the season.
At 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, Nall is a big, strong running back capable of breaking tackles to pick up extra yards and move the chains. But the junior also has the speed to break off a long run, as evidenced by his 75-yard touchdown against Colorado State and his 45-yarder against Washington State. Overall, Nall has run for 597 yards and seven TDs while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He has surpassed 100 rushing yards in three games, most recently with 172 yards and three scores against Colorado.
Cal linebacker Devante Downs was the Pac-12’s leader with 65 tackles before he suffered a season-ending injury in the win over Washington State. Downs, a playmaking linebacker, was responsible for 5.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Since the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week went down, the Bears have allowed more than 500 total yards in back-to-back losses.
But Downs isn’t the only Cal impact player on the shelf. Linebacker Cameron Saffle, running back Tre Watson and receiver Demetris Robertson were also lost to season-ending injuries early this year, while left tackle Patrick Mekari has been hampered by an injury.
Oregon State is in a similar situation, and the full injury report has had a big impact on the team’s chemistry and consistency. Quarterback Jake Luton started the first four games of the season for the Beavers before suffering a spine fracture against Washington State, and wide receiver Seth Collins also has been sidelined in recent weeks.
Furthermore, starting cornerbacks Xavier Crawford and Dwayne Williams are out for the season, and safeties Landry Payne and Austin Hudson have been ruled out this week – bad news for a unit facing Cal quarterback Ross Bowers and a passing attack averaging 269.3 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the Pac-12. The Beavers have surrendered 261.0 passing yards per game this year.
3. Creative play-calling
Both Oregon State and Cal have struggled offensively this season, ranking in the bottom of the Pac-12 in total offense. The Beavers have found it particularly difficult to put points on the scoreboard, and rank dead last in the conference and are tied for 116th nationally with 20.4 points per game. Looking for a spark, Oregon State drew up a backwards pass to tackle Fred Lauina in the red zone last week against Stanford. The play, officially an eight-yard carry for the 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman, set up a three-yard Darrell Garretson touchdown run that gave the Beavers a 7-3 lead.
Oregon State has sealed its postseason fate, and Cory Hall has nothing to lose as an interim head coach. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a shock to see another unique trick play on offense, or perhaps a fake punt or field goal. Cal, desperate to get back in the win column and keep its bowl hopes alive, also could get creative. After all, the Bears could use a spark of their own since the team ranks last in the Pac-12 in yards per play (4.95) and 11th in both total offense (371.6 ypg) and rushing (102.2 ypg).
A Cal victory would be a huge step towards salvaging what was once a very promising season following back-to-back losses in winnable games against Arizona and Colorado. The Bears need two wins to reach bowl eligibility, so a loss to the Beavers would require road wins against both UCLA and Stanford. Despite injuries piling up elsewhere, Oregon State has an edge in the running game, and the team as a whole has shown improvement and creativity with interim head coach Cory Hall in charge. Expect a close game, but for the more desperate team to find a way to win.
Prediction: Cal 31, Oregon State 27
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member –of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.