Deck Stacked Against Cal, But Plenty To Watch
By John Baker
The youngest team in the Pac-12 visits one of the most inhospitable places to play in all the land Saturday night when a green California stops in Eugene to test itself against No. 2 Oregon.
The Golden Bears come in with a 1-2 record under first-year coach Sonny Dykes, but almost certainly will be overmatched by an Oregon offense that's putting up points, yardage and big plays nearly as fast as the scoreboard can record them. And that figures to be the issue for the Bears in this one: Getting enough stops to try and have at least a competitive shootout. Because, believe it or not, the Bears are not without some weapons in this one.
Unfortunately, defense is not one of them. The Bears haven't stopped anyone much this year. California gives up 42 points a game and allows 262 yards on the ground (121st out of 123 teams) and 294 passing yards a game (110th nationally).
Scary when you think that Oregon is rushing for 355 yards a game (second), putting up 672 yards a game (second), and is No. 2 in scoring offense at just a hair more than 61 points a game. And off that juggernaut of a rushing game is a play-action passing game that is making stars out of receivers like Josh Huff, Bralon Addison and a whole group of interchangeable playmakers at tight end and receiver.
And on top of all that, the game is at Oregon on national TV — two factors that seem to always make the Ducks even more formidable.
So, the California Golden Bears are road kill just awaiting the parks department in Eugene to come by and scrap them off the side of the road. Right?
Not so fast my friends. While the Ducks should win this one in a runaway, the Bears, green as they are, have some interesting parts. Keep an eye on these four California Golden Bears:
Jared Goff, Quarterback: A freshman, Goff leads the nation in passing yards per game at 425 and has shown an ability to handle adversity and the ups and downs of the college game. More than that, he's put the ball on the money under pressure, something he's sure to feel Saturday with Oregon's defense zeroing on him. He has been prone to interceptions with four in three games and, as with most of this team, he's had to accept the struggles of a youthful offensive line. He's been sacked 12 times. Still, if the California defense can force some stops or turnovers, Goff is capable of making things interesting. It's likely he'll throw for more than 400 yards once again Saturday. It may be their only chance.
Chris Harper and Brian Treggs, Wide Receivers: With all that passing yardage, you didn't think the Bears were devoid of quality pass catchers, did you? As good as Goff has been as a freshman quarterback, Treggs and Harper have been a revelation for this offense and are capable of giving the Ducks fits if they are allowed to run wild. Treggs is the go-to guy for Goff with 28 catches in three games for a little more than 300 yards and one score. Harper does a little more of the stretch work, hauling in 21 passes for 324 yards and three scores. Both are sophomores, which keeps the theme of youth rolling for this team. They have the speed to turn a quick catch into a long run. They should get plenty of opportunity to make a dent as California should rely on the passing game. The receivers should be a good test for a Ducks secondary that many are touting as the nation's best.
Brendan Bigelow, Running Back: Normally a guy who has just 175 yards and no scores through three games wouldn't classify as much of a threat, but Bigelow is intriguing on several fronts. He was a five-star recruit as a high schooler, but underwent two knee surgeries within a year before entering California, so they've brought him along slowly and worked hard to keep him healthy and regain his confidence. The reason he's worth keeping an eye on?: He's healthy and he's fast. He'll share some touches with Daniel Lasco, but if the Bears are to have any hope of staying in this one, they'll need to get something from Bigelow on the ground.
Keep an eye on these three Ducks:
Byron Marshall, Running Back: After a struggling start, Marshall has played better of late, but has yet to deliver a definitive performance that will settle him into the running back spot and allow De'Anthony Thomas to move around more looking for mismatches. The Golden Bears and their porous defense would seem to be the perfect tonic to a running game that, while putting up huge numbers, has struggled to be dominant between the tackles. Marshall has had an extra week to work on hitting the holes hard and getting upfield. At some point, the Ducks' outside running game is going to run into a defense that can handle it and that is more likely with the continued struggles between the tackles. Marshall could make that point mute at last with a big-time performance.
Colt Lyerla, Tight End: What a strange start to the season for the athletic and talented Lyerla. Expected to be one of the best in the nation when things kicked off, Lyerla has been plagued by drops, limited targets, illness and a mini-media storm about how coach Mark Helfrich phrased his absence from the last game, sparked by Lyerla's less-than-diplomatic response to that phrasing. That's what bye weeks are for. Right now, Lyerla ranks 90th in the Pac-12 with two catches for 26 yards and no scores. Given what has transpired and the real need for Lyerla to be a player, the gut feeling here is that the Ducks are going to come out of the bye week with a plan to get the preseason all-American untracked once and for all. He's been quiet, but he's a mismatch for just about anybody the Bears use to cover him. I think he breaks out big-time.
De'Anthony Thomas, Running Back/Receiver: The Black Mamba is fourth in the conference in rushing, but 42 carries in three games is more than the Ducks' coaching braintrust wants, particularly as the competition ramps up. By carrying the running game, Thomas has become virtually invisible as a receiving threat, his best chance of creating mismatches. Coinciding with Marshall's improvement, the feeling here is that DAT is going to get more involved in the passing game and that's going to deliver some big plays against the California defense. The Ducks need to get DAT involved, not because its receivers are unproductive, but because it puts more demands on defenses, which helps the offense as a whole. Look for DAT to catch multiple passes and have a big day as he hits the end zone multiple times.
Predicted Score: Oregon 66, California 17