Well, here we are, about 24 hours from kickoff of what is the biggest Duck game so far this season. Most of the college football media seems to be picking Cal, due to their unstoppable offense and better defense. Forgive me if I do not see what the media sees, because while I think they are a very good football team, who exactly have they beaten? They had one tough game so far, and got absolutely destroyed at Tennessee. Their offense is good, but not as good as Oregon's, and the stats show the truth about the Cal defense. Lets break it down:
California Offense vs. Oregon Defense
Oh, Cal has a great blend of power and speed on offense. We all know that Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett are premier backs. Lynch is 11th in the nation in rushing and averaging seven yards/carry. We know that the banged up Duck defensive line has had trouble with the running game all year. On the plus side for the Ducks is that Jeremy Gibbs is expected to be back for this game. Expect Lynch to have a big game, but the Ducks has survived big games from running backs all season long.
I'm more interested in how much pressure the defensive line can get on Nate Longshore. The Cal passing game has been great lately, with Longshore playing pitch and catch with DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Robert Jordan all season long. All three are really good receivers and Jackson, only a sophomore, is already among the best receivers in the conference. And Lynch is a big receiving threat out of the backfield as well. While I realize that Dexter Manley and the defensive line had five sacks last week, Manley was going up against a first time starter at tackle. Cal's line is a bit more experienced. We also know that Nate Longshore can't possibly play as bad as Rudy Carpenter did last week. However, Longshore will make errors under pressure, so getting a good pass rush will be key. Walter Thurmond and Terrell Ward have been playing well at the corners, but this will be their biggest test as this bunch will be the best wideouts that the Ducks have seen this year. Thurmond and Ward will have to continue to play well, and it would help if Patrick Chung and J.D. Nelson could get some big hits.
Another thing not mentioned is Longshore's lack of experience in big games. Sure, he has played very well lately. However, his only big game was the Tennessee game, and he got rocked. One game does not a career make, but it will be interesting to see how Longshore handles the big game pressure on primetime. We know Dennis Dixon can handle it.
All in all, I expect that Cal will probably be able to move the ball fairly decently against Oregon. However, the Ducks defense, while much maligned in the media, is actually ranked #4 in the Pac-10 at this point. This is a decent defense, and will be able to contain Cal enough to allow Oregon's offense to win the game.
Oregon's offense vs. Cal's defense
Here is the secret that the media doesn't want you to know: statistically speaking, Oregon's defense is WAY better than Cal's. Oregon is ranked 47th in the country, and Cal is ranked 91st. That's two rankings below Arizona State--and we all know how Oregon just shredded their defense. You read correctly, Oregon's defense is ranked 44 spots above Cal's, and the Ducks haven't even had a D 1-AA opponent like Cal has. Cal is giving up 370 ypg, compared to Oregon's 309. With that balanced Oregon offense, you have to like the Ducks' chances of moving the ball vs. the Bears. Daymien Hughes is a very good cover corner, maybe the best in the country, but he can't cover all the receivers.
The defensive line is decent, with 14 sacks on the year, but Oregon's offensive line has allowed Dixon to be sacked only once all year. Cal's defense does have 12 takeaways, but Dixon has thrown only two picks all year. Before looking at the stats, I assumed that Cal had a pretty good defense, but after looking at the stats, I can't say that I'm impressed at all. I think that the Ducks have absolutely no trouble moving the ball vs. Cal. I just don't see them having enough weapons to stop Dixon, Stewart, J-Will, and all the Ducks' other weapons.
Cal has a good return game. We know that the Ducks' special teams have allowed some big returns, so they will really need to play well. Cal has a good punter, and the Ducks, well they don't. However, I don't foresee the Ducks punting a whole lot. However, Paul Martinez is one of the better kickers in the country, while Cal's Tom Schneider has been average in his career. If Oregon cannot limit the return game, it will put more pressure on their defense.
Oregon is the second most penalized team in the country. However, Cal is also 95th in penalty yards. The team that can play more discipline will have a definite advantage.
I think that the very worst case scenario is that this game turns into a shootout, and I really like Oregon's chances in a shootout. However, I think it is more likely that Oregon's defense makes a few more stops than Cal's. I like Cal to stay in it for 3 quarters, but the Ducks pull away in the fourth.
Oregon 42, Cal 34