We're four games into the season, and well, the Oregon defense hasn't performed quite like we'd hoped. The Ducks have given up a lot of yards to Nevada, Missouri State, and Arizona, though they won all three games by significant margins. Against Nevada and Missouri State, the Oregon run game looked weak, while against Arizona, the Ducks secondary looked helpless at times.
Luckily, the Ducks are up against a Cal offense that has struggled with consistency. The easy pathway to success for the Ducks is to give Cal a long field, and force the Golden Bears to consistently move the ball and gain first downs. Cal has the talent to move the ball through big plays, but in the last few years, Oregon has done an excellent job at getting opponents into passing downs and succeeding in those situations. If opponents have had to drive the length of the field, they've had trouble scoring points. Let's take a look at the specific matchups in this game.
Stopping the Cal running game:
The first key to Oregon's success will be stopping the Cal running game. While this has been a tougher proposition in past years, this task looks significantly easier with the loss of Shane Vereen. Taking his place is Isi Sofele, and he is backed up by C.J. Anderson. Though their numbers look good overall, if you throw out the game against Presbyterian, the Cal rushing attack averages only 120 yards per game on the ground, at 3.63 yards per carry. This isn't Arizona bad, but it puts the Golden Bears in the bottom 2/3 of the nation.
While the Ducks rushing attack struggled against a pistol and a spread team, they have done quite well against more conventional rushing attacks. While Arizona's rushing offense is rather pathetic, the Ducks held them to only 2.3 yards per carry, and this was with a largely 6-man front. Cal's athletic QB Zach Maynard may give the Ducks some trouble running the ball from time to time, but the Ducks front 7 has been slowly improving, and Cal should have problems moving the ball consistently on the ground. This is simply not a line or rushing attack that strikes fear into opposing teams. They may grow into that, but they aren't there yet.
While many Duck fans are fretting about the Oregon secondary, the battle at the line is really the matchup that will spell success or failure for the Oregon secondary. If the Ducks succeed in stopping the Bear rushing attack with only six-men, the Cal passing attack will have all sorts of trouble throwing against Oregon's corners and safeties. But if safety help is needed to stop the running game, Cal's chances to moving the ball become much better.
Locking down Cal's talented receivers:
Much like the Cal rushing game, the passing game has been inconsistent. But unlike the rushing game, the passing game has been very explosive. The Golden Bears have two of the best receivers in the conference in Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. Allen is averaging over 100 yards per game, and Jones is averaging over 90. They are dangerous receivers.
While Zach Maynard is completing only 51% of his passes, he is averaging the same amount per attempt as Darron Thomas, who is completing 61% of this passes. When Cal completes passes, they are for a lot of yards, averaging over 15 yards per completion.
Luckily for the Ducks, this receiving corp does not have the depth of the Arizona team we saw last week. Allen and Jones have been the targets for 70% of Cal's passes. These Bears apparently don't share a whole lot. By contrast, Oregon's most targeted receiver is Lavasier Tuinei, and he's targeted only 16% of the time.
This is great news for the Oregon secondary. Against Arizona, they had to cover the whole field. Against Cal, this isn't quite the case. It will almost definitely be going to Jones or Allen, and I'm confident that Nick Aliotti and John Neal will have a strong secondary scheme to limit the production of these two players. While both receivers have been productive, Oregon has a lot of talent at the corner position, and with Cliff Harris hopefully at 100%, it could end up being a long night for Cal receivers as they fight to beat the talented Oregon corners only to face a ball-hawking John Boyett.
If the Ducks are going to be beat through the air, Cal QB Zach Maynard is going to have to find other targets, and he just hasn't done that this season.
While Oregon's pass rush has been inconsistent this year, they showed last week that they can get to the QB in passing situations. If Oregon can get even a modest amount of pressure on Maynard, it could be a long day for the Cal passing attack.
This is a game where the Ducks hold a number of key advantages. Their strengths match up well with Cal's strengths, and I don't think Cal has the skill up front to really exploit Oregon's youth and inexperience at linebacker.
Oregon has one of the most talented secondaries in the conference and (outside of Arizona), teams will have to establish a consistent running game to bring up the safeties and build a successful passing game.
I just don't think that Cal can do this. With such explosive players on the edges, it will be tough for the Ducks to shut them down entirely. But this seems like a game where we should see the Oregon defense step up and play up to their talent level.