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How will the Oregon 'D' hold up tomorrow?

It's been busy around here with Dave's resignation and such. So we're getting all our posts in today! Make sure to check out Jeremy's preview of the Cal defense, as well as our Q&A with Cal Golden Blogs.

While a lot of press has been given to when Oregon has the ball, focusing on Masoli and the 3-4 defense of Cal, it seems that the other side of the ball has been overlooked.

For Cal, on the offensive side of the ball, it starts with the first man to touch the ball every play: Alex Mack. He’s the best lineman in the Pac-10, and one of the best in college football. It will start with him. To see what he’s capable of, check out this video by the always great Danzig. Mack has the ability to clear the middle in almost every play. There are few offensive linemen this dominating, and this will by far be the toughest job Linehan and Harris face all season.

But beyond Mack, Cal is having some injury issues. They came into the year with arguably the best offensive line in the Pac-10 (in the discussion with our own offensive line), but they have sustained a large amount of injuries. They will be missing 3 starters and their first reserve. At the tackles, first year starter Mitchell Schwartz will have to face Nick Reed, his toughest test in his short career, while JC transfer Donovan Edwards will make his first start against the dangerous Will Tukuafu. To make matters worse for the Bears, it sounds like redshirt freshman Justin Cheadle will be playing in the place of senior Norris Malele.

This should make life much easier on the Oregon line, with that much inexperience in place. Mack is a star, but the Cal ground game will have a tough time getting going if Oregon ends are constantly creating pressure and getting into the backfield early. And this type of pressure is imperative. In Cal’s worst game of the season, against Maryland, they failed to create running lanes, and were held to a mere 36 yards on the ground. Though they will have problems in the very center, due to the inexperience on the Cal line, there will be a lot of opportunities to limit Cal’s rushing attack due to quick penetration outside of the guards. If Harris and Linehan can simply not get steamrolled, which is harder than it sounds, Oregon should be able to do an adequate job winning the battle at the line.

But even if Oregon gets penetration, they have to execute. Cal has two very good running backs in Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Both are small, fast, and a threat to take it to the house at every moment. If a defender gets a hand on the ball carrier, they must make the tackle.

In terms of the passing game, I feel confident that Oregon should be able handle this portion of the Cal offense, due to a combination of pressure on Riley and the inability of the Cal receivers to catch the ball. But then again, I felt similarly when we played Boise State as well, and we all know how that turned out.

The Cal running game must be stopped if Oregon wants to compete in this game, and this is made even more important due to the predicted wet conditions. But Oregon must play fundamentally sound in defending the pass.

I have little doubt that the Oregon secondary should be able to cover the Cal receivers well, especially down the field. We saw this happen in the ASU game, and all ASU receivers were covered incredibly well throughout the entire game. Cal, with a young receiving corp that has faced the dropsies all season, will most likely meet a similar fate.

However, there three key things that must be stopped.

  1. Kevin Riley. He is somewhat mobile, and if Oregon is bringing pressure around the ends, he will have the ability to step up, and create some more time in the pocket. Also, Riley has not been spectacular, but has not made mistakes either. It is unlikely that he will lose this game for Cal.
  2. The passing games to tight ends and receivers. This was the main culprit of many of the problems against BSU, and the Oregon linebackers and safeties must play sound football, and not get beat. At this point, I think that these problems have been at least somewhat corrected. Play action defense has gotten better, and the secondary and linebackers have been doing a much better job at knocked inside receivers off of their routes. This must continue.
  3. Cal could go conservative and work its way down the field, as UCLA did a few weeks ago. UCLA moved the ball using short passes and getting itself into third and long situations. They gained some momentum this way, and started to execute in the second half. I can see Cal going this route, and working its way down the field, but at the same time, it is very hard to make long drives work this way. One or two mistakes, and that drive is over.

Overall, this won’t be an easy game defensively. If Cal comes out and gets a few first downs rushing, that will open up the play-action, as Ward or Chung come up to the line and cheat against the run.

And what will be possibly the most important aspect of this game is the field position. If the Oregon D starts with poor field position, Cal will score some points. But if Cal must work with a long field, Oregon is disruptive enough that over a 60+ yard drive, they can usually get a big play or two that will stop that drive.

If Cal has its way on the ground, this will be a tough afternoon. But if Oregon can get Cal into enough predictable situations, I like Oregon’s chances.