Special thanks to Norcalnick and atomsareenough for taking to the time to answer these questions.
The Sonny Dykes era seems to have brought some excitement back to Cal. What's the general feeling of how he's done 3 games in?
Norcalnick: The reactions have really run the gamut. Some fans just wanted to watch football that wasn't stale and depressing. Others can't see past a defense that has struggled mightily in every way. The internal optimists see an offense that could be a juggernaut in a year or two. Pessimists wonder why the team can't get healthy.
Bottom line: When you've only watched three games from an entirely new coaching staff with young players, you can project whatever you want on to them.
atomsareenough: It's hard to know what we really have so far. The offense has been competent from the get-go, so that's been refreshing after the last couple of years. We've consistently racked up yardage against everyone we've played so far, and our scoring is up, but the yardage is far outpacing the scoring, so it feels like we could be much more potent than we have been, even. We're throwing and completing a lot of passes, Goff has been very impressive for a true freshman, but he's still got a fair amount of learning and growing to do. The emphasis on the passing game has been necessary because we haven't run the football very well so far. If we could run it more consistently, that would also help us be more successful in the red zone, where we have been too often settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. But we're excited about the potential of the offense. Pretty much every Cal fan is rather concerned about the defense, though. There are lots of available explanations for Cal's struggles - we're implementing a new scheme; many of our best and most experienced players are injured, and the ones who are playing are raw or playing a new position or are not as talented; we've faced an extremely tough schedule full of quality offensive teams; a few veteran guys we were depending on have underperformed so far, etc... So it's kind of like a perfect storm of defensive badness... But at the same time there aren't that many hopeful signs either. Maybe we'll get healthier and smarter and more experienced and the level of play will start to improve over the course of the season, but there just aren't a whole lot of indicators yet that that's happening. It's also quite possible that the players on that side of the ball aren't as good as we thought and perhaps DC Andy Buh is out of his depth. Overall though, I think we like Dykes and think he's saying all the right things and seems to be improving the program and instilling some accountability, so we're hoping it will work out. The bad defense is definitely giving folks heartburn though.
Cal's defensive struggles this year have been well-documented, but the Bears also have a history of making life difficult for Oregon? Do they have a decent shot at slowing Oregon on Saturday night?
Norcalnick: Nah. Cal's history of slowing down Oregon happened to coincide with defenses that were at least solidly above average, with obvious pro prospects at multiple positions. This defense isn't significantly different from the defense that Oregon raced past last year, and the main similarity between then and now is that the defense is as equally beaten up injury-wise.
Cal is so desperate for bodies in the secondary that converted defensive ends/linebackers and converted wide receivers might get meaningful playing time. The depth issue reached crisis level a few weeks ago - just in time for Ohio State and Oregon. And people wonder why Cal fans are fatalistic.
atomsareenough: The Bears have a small chance of slowing Oregon, but it is exceedingly small. I certainly wouldn't characterize it as a "decent shot", no. Oregon will get theirs in terms of yards and points. The only way I would really expect Cal to win is if we are able to match the Ducks in terms of offensive output and manage to get just enough key stops or turnovers on defense to come out of the shootout on top. We've been throwing players at the problem, burning redshirts and moving guys around to try and get the best athletes on the field. Hopefully that stems the bleeding a little. We've started trying a true freshman, a converted wide receiver, and a converted linebacker in the secondary, playing a lot of nickel, doing whatever we can to find a combination that works. We get Nick Forbes back at MLB for the first time this week, though who knows how ready he'll be after being sidelined for so long due to back problems. The d-line hasn't been very successful at getting pressure; we're missing two projected starters and have had to play a former walk-on, a JC transfer, and a true freshman extensively. We've had 3 true and redshirt freshman linebackers get a lot playing time because of injuries. It's a mess.
Which Cal defensive player (or players) should Duck fans keep their eye out for?
Norcalnick: Chris McCain is the player most likely to make a spectacular play, but Nick Forbes is probably the most consistently talented player, when healthy. He's been cleared to play although his injury has been long-term enough that he probably isn't ready to go 100%.
Oregon's secondary hasn't been even marginally tested this year, and they're not going up against the most prolific passer in college football. What expectations do you guys have for this matchup?
Norcalnick: I expect Cal to gain yards. I think the scheme and execution against quality opposition so far has been at a high enough level that Cal should expect to have reasonable success against pretty much anybody in the country. And the sheer pace of this game will mean that Cal could score on less than half their drives and still run up a decent number.
Does that mean Call will blow up for 50 points? Nah. But I think Cal could very well get into the 30s, and inspire an unnecessarily reactionary comment in the ATQ post-game thread along the lines of 'Am I the only one a little worried about our defense?' because you spoiled bastards have to find the tiniest nits to pick about your team.
atomsareenough: I expect our receivers to challenge them. Goff has spread the ball around to a bunch of receivers, but his two biggest targets are Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, both of whom have speed and can get go up and get the ball. They should be a tough matchup for any secondary, even a quality one such as Oregon's. Richard Rodgers is also a big and physical receiver and has been used at times as a 3rd down safety valve. As Helfrich pointed out in his Tuesday interview, we tend to get the ball out pretty quickly, and we're going to complete some passes on you, but the question is, can we do it consistently enough to sustain drives and get to the end zone?
Brendon Bigelow is one of the most exciting players in the Pac-12, but hasn't really gotten on track this season. Is he poised to breakout against Oregon?
Norcalnick: Biggie has had three major knee surgeries in his career, and it's an open question if he'll ever regain the form he showed during his all-too-few touches in 2012. A breakout performance is always possible, but if you were a gambling man you probably wouldn't put your money on that game finally coming at Oregon.
atomsareenough: He had a minor knee procedure during the offseason, and he should be healthy by now, but he's had so many knee surgeries and recoveries, perhaps it's still in his head a bit, and he hasn't felt confident enough to be as explosive as he can be. I sure hope he's poised to break out against Oregon. That would be a much-needed step forward for our running game. The blocking hasn't been great up front, but also it's felt like our backs have been just a step or a juke away from busting a big run, and it hasn't quite happened yet. Daniel Lasco is a bit more powerful runner, and he had a good showing against Ohio State, and perhaps he can run effectively between the tackles for us. Khalfani Muhammad has world class speed and has been quietly impressive in the early going as well.
One of Oregon's main defensive deficiencies so far this year is at linebacker. How will Cal attack to take advantage of this weakness?
Norcalnick: Well, Cal puts so many receivers out into the backfield that linebackers will almost certainly have to participate in coverage to some extent. Maybe Cal gets big converted tight end Richard Rodgers matched up on a lineman. Maybe Cal's wide receiver screens will find some space cutting back towards the middle. I think if there's something that Cal's offense shares in common with Oregon's, it's a willingness to exploit whatever space or weakness is available.
atomsareenough: Well, Oregon's secondary is pretty good, and our o-line isn't that great, so I wouldn't be surprised if we try to get the ball out quickly and attack the middle of the field with slants and curls.
So, we all boo injured players now. We cool?
Norcalnick: I guess. I'm not especially thrilled about the booing, but I have no illusions about my ability to control the larger Cal fanbase. For what it's worth, I don't think Cal fans have booed any legitimately injured players yet. I wonder if it will come against USC or Stanford?
atomsareenough: Hey now, we don't boo anyone! We just like to yell the name of our defensive coordinator. You know, to encourage him.