Cal defense hopes to again clip Ducks' wings
More realistically, the question is whether Cal can come anywhere close to that performance.
Last season, Cal's defense smothered the explosive Oregon offense like no other team was able to do, despite losing to the Ducks, 15-13.
Oregon finished the season leading the country at 47.0 points per game and an average of 530.7 yard per game.
But against the Bears in the 10th game of the season, the Ducks, ranked No. 1 at the time, managed only 15 points and 317 yards, both season lows.
And the Bears' defensive effort was even better than those numbers suggest because the Cal defense yielded only one touchdown, with the Ducks' other score coming on a punt return.
LaMichael James, who finished as the nation's leading rusher, was limited to 91 yards, and before Oregon began its last drive with under 10 minutes left, he had only 59.
Two things are different this time, however.
This game is in Eugene, not Berkeley. Ever since Clancy Pendergast became Cal's defensive coordinator before last season, the Bears' defense has been outstanding at home and mediocre to poor on the road.
Being at home was a major factor for the Bears last season. Playing on the Ducks' fast surface, in front of their noisy crowd, which figures to be even noisier for a Thursday night game, will make the defensive challenge greater. The Ducks have won 18 straight home games.
Cal gave Oregon some defensive looks it had not seen before, and that seemed to confuse quarterback Darron Thomas and the Oregon offense in general. The Ducks no doubt will be prepared for those defensive looks this time, not only because they saw them last season, but because they are coming off a bye and have had 12 days to prepare for the Bears.
There is one other thing that is different that favors Cal. Last season against Oregon, the Bears' quarterback was Brock Mansion, who simply was not capable of playing at a Pac-12 level. The Bears had no passing game at all, or even the threat of a passing game, making it almost impossible to produce enough points to beat the Ducks, despite the Bears' defensive performance.
This time the Bears will have a passing threat. Quarterback Zach Maynard is by no means a star, but he is a significant upgrade from Mansion. He also has the ability to avoid a pass rush, something Mansion could not do. Having one of the best wide-receiver tandems in the country, Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones, gives Maynard some weapons.
Nonetheless, Cal will be a big underdog, not only because the Ducks are more talented than Cal, but because Cal is playing on the road. The disparity between the Bears' performances at home and on the road since the start of 2010, especially defensively, is so great that it defies explanation.
--Cal had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter against Oregon last season, but Giorgio Tavecchio missed a 29-yard field goal attempt. Soon after, Oregon took possession at its own 20 with 9:25 left in the game, and proceeded to run out the clock in an 18-play, 65-yard drive that got as far as the Cal 12-yard line, where two kneel-downs ended the game.
--Oregon's only touchdowns against Cal last season came on a 29-yard pass to Jeff Maehl in the third quarter and a 65-yard punt return by Cliff Harris in the second quarter. Maehl has graduated, and Harris has returned after an early-season suspension, but has not regained his starting cornerback spot.
--Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, perhaps the Bears' best recruiter, was suspended after last season's Oregon game for instructing players to fake injuries to slow down Oregon's no-huddle, hurry-up offense. The suspension arose a few days after DL Aaron Tipoti looked to the sidelines between plays, then suddenly crumbled to the ground. Lupoi is back on the staff.
--Cal, like most teams, typically does not devote much, if any, practice time to game-planning during bye weeks, but this week was different. That's partly because the next game is on a Thursday rather than Saturday, and partly because Oregon offers so much to prepare for. The Bears used two days of practice during the bye week to game plan for the Ducks. They practiced in full pads on Sunday, Oct. 2, which is what the Bears do on Tuesday or Wednesday in a typical week.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads 39-32-2. Last meeting 2010 (15-13, Oregon).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal is averaging 39.5 points and has moved the ball effectively against all four opponents. However, all four opponents had weak defenses, and that includes the Bears' most recent foe, Washington. QB Zach Maynard has been a noticeable improvement at quarterback over the last two seasons, because he is able to make plays at critical moments. His completion percentage of 52.2 percent remains far too low, however. WRs Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen have been outstanding. TB Isi Sofele has been better than expected in his first season as a starting tailback, averaging 95 yards a game, although he still might be the least effective starting tailback Jeff Tedford has had at Cal. That might say more about Sofele's outstanding predecessors than about Sofele, however. The offensive line has been solid, although, again, it has been against mediocre defenses. Cal's inability to score touchdowns from inside the red zone was a major factor in the Sept. 24 loss to Washington.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Bears' defense has been awfully good against the run, and poor against the pass. The Bears rank 12th in the country in run defense, yielding 78.3 yards a game, but they rank 81st of 119 teams in pass defense. The Bears have 13 sacks so they have been applying enough pressure, but Washington and Colorado did virtually whatever they wanted to do in the air. Their quarterbacks, Colorado's Tyler Hansen and Washington's Keith Price, are good, but probably not as good as what Cal will see the next two weeks from Oregon's Darron Thomas and USC's Matt Barkley. Look for freshman CB Stefan McClure to get more playing time against Oregon, and he may be a starter before long.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're just going to commit to playing him. He is a guy that we've identified that's going to be out there for a lot of the rest of the games." -- Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, to the Oakland Tribune, regarding freshman CB Stefan McClure.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cal at Oregon, Oct. 6 -- Cal is 3-1 after a 31-23 loss to Washington, and Oregon is 3-1 after a 56-31 victory over Arizona, its third consecutive game of scoring more than 55 points. Oregon has won 18 straight home games.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal must do a lot of things right to stay in the game, but it starts with controlling LaMichael James and getting a pass rush on QB Darron Thomas. The Bears did an excellent job in both respects last season, and if they can come close to matching that effort, they can stay close. Getting a pass rush on Thomas will not be easy, though, because Oregon has yielded only one sack in its four games, to lead in the nation. If Cal can pound Oregon with its running game and control the ball for long periods, that should help keep the score down, which benefits the Bears. Oregon's run defense has not been very good, so if Isi Sofele can have a big day, which is certainly possible, Cal might have a chance. QB Zach Maynard can't commit any turnovers, because Cal has to make it as difficult as possible for the Ducks to score points.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Marvin Jones -- Jones made a few acrobatic catches against Washington, and he should have some opportunities to make plays against Oregon's defense.
WR Keenan Allen -- He had 10 catches for 197 yards against Washington, and he ranks fourth in the nation in receiving yardage. Having Marvin Jones on the other side is a big help because it prevents defenses for devoting all their attention to Allen.
CB Stefan McClure -- Pass coverage has been the Bears' biggest weakness this season, and McClure, a true freshman, is expected to get a lot more playing time against Oregon. This is a tough spot for a freshman, given the Oregon crowd and the proficiency of the Oregon offense, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts.
ILBs D.J. Holt and Mychal Kendricks -- If Cal is to control Oregon TB LaMichael James, both have to have big games. Both did have big games last season against the Ducks, which is part of the reason Cal nearly pulled off the upset. They have to make all the right decisions on Oregon's option play, because one mistake could mean a touchdown run for Darron Thomas or James.
--K Giorgio Tavecchio was named a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, given annually to the top student-athlete in college football. Cal's Alex Mack won the award in 2008, when it was known as the Draddy Award.
--TB Dasarte Yarnway had arthroscopic surgery during the bye week, and will be sidelined indefinitely. He did not figure to play anyway, as he is not among the top four on the depth chart at tailback.
--TB Trajuan Briggs is unlikely to be available for the Oregon game because of a knee injury, but he is not among the top four tailbacks on the depth chart.