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Stopping Shane Vereen early is the key to winning the day in Berkeley

With Kevin Riley out, Shane Vereen is the key to the Cal offense.
With Kevin Riley out, Shane Vereen is the key to the Cal offense.

I've spent the week searching for an interesting angle to this game.  I know that we're all in PANIC! mode.  I know that we haven't won in Berkeley since 2001.  I know that Cal has looked great at home. But, the truth of the matter is that Oregon has every advantage coming into this game.  Oregon obviously has the better offense.  Oregon has the better defense (Cal, 12th in the country in total defense, averages 4.7/yards against per play.  Oregon gives up 4.5, a number that would be tops even in the vaunted SEC).  Oh, and the weather report for Berkeley says 70 degrees and sunny for Saturday.  No monsoon this time around.  Factor in that Cal is starting their backup quarterback and, well, everything is ripe for another Duck victory on Saturday.

That said, we all know what conventional wisdom says about beating the Ducks.  You must put together long, sustained drives, thus keeping Oregon's offense off the field, and you must finish the drives with touchdowns.  Cal isn't really an offense built for that kind of game..their total offense is 73rd in the country at 359 yards/game, and their 5.61 yards/play is nothing to crow home about.  Their surprising 30 points per game is the result of their defense largely giving them good field position and punching those in with their run game.  However, their scores have shown this season that they have not been able to do this against the better teams on their schedule, as evidenced by lopsided losses at Nevada, USC, and Oregon State.  And it would seem evident that Cal's chances of having a consistently short field against Oregon is very small.  After all, Cal's defense was shredded by Matt Barkley, Colin Kaepernick, and Ryan KatzDarron Thomas is on par with those quarterbacks.  To be fair, Cal did hold Arizona to ten points in a 10-9 loss in Tucson, but that loss also goes to show just how much has to go exactly right for Cal to beat a good team, as the Bears did nothing against the Wildcat defense that game.

Another factor in Oregon's favor is that Cal starts backup quarterback in Brock Mansion.  We don't know a lot about Mansion, but the two things we know are awfully telling.  The first is that Mansion is a junior, and for three years he has been unable to beat out the woefully inconsistent Kevin Riley.  The second is that in his only meaningful action, he was 12-24 with two picks against Wazzu.  Neither of those things would predict success against one of the top pass defenses in the nation.

It becomes abundantly clear that Cal's only chance of victory against Oregon is to have a big day from their run game and, specifically, their horse in Shane Vereen.  Vereen averages almost a hundred yards a game, but only had ten and twelve carries respectively in their blowout losses at USC and at Oregon State.  We will see a heavy dose of the run game on the first couple of drives.  If Cal can convert those drives into touchdowns, and maybe make a stop or two on the Oregon offense, they can stick around for awhile in this game.  But, if Oregon stops Vereen early, you take away the Bears' most potent weapon and make them play a game of catch up with an untested quarterback at the helm.  At that point, Cal's chances of winning, already small, approach zero.

Oregon can struggle early and still win the game going away.  But, if Cal struggles early, they will get run out of the building.  Take a look at Vereen's stats in the fist  half.  If Oregon keeps him in check during that period, they will win the day in Berkeley.