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Oregon Ducks vs. Cal Bears: Can Oregon keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive?

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All room for error is gone, and they still need Stanford to drop a game, but despite the tumultuous season, Oregon can still win the Pac-12.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

If for no other reason, we can look back admirably to Oregon’s last game as a reminder of a simpler time. We’ve basked in the glow of blowout, non-competitive wins for the better part of seven years; as cringe-worthy as it sounds, winning was beginning to feel stale.It was expected, every Saturday, that Oregon would show up, steamroll the first 30 minutes, then drift off for the second half, with a 25+ point win a mere formality.No more. And, honestly…isn’t this a lot more fun?

After the mystifying, bleary-eyed win last Thursday in Tempe, Oregon, somehow, still has a pulse in this otherwise disappointing season. It was a Johnny Mundt-Dwayne Stanford collision away from disappearing but, somehow, it's still here.

And with that newfound optimism, perhaps the toughest challenge of the season enters Autzen Saturday night in the California Bears, led by Jared Goff and the Bear-Raid attack. Cal will throw the ball at the Oregon secondary until Goff's arm falls off. Seriously. Like, literally falls off. But the Bears, 5-0 three weeks away, yet riding a three-game losing streak, also bring with them a potent running game, led by Daniel Lasco, and an opportunistic defense.

Remember, these Bears had six turnovers, and still took Utah down to the wire. In Utah. With College Gameday there. Don't let the 5-3 record fool you -- they pose as big of a challenge as any opponent Oregon has faced this season.

With that, here's three things to watch for tomorrow night.

1. Forget Jared Goff…contain Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. The predictive narrative – and forgone conclusion, to many – is that Jared Goff will walk into Autzen and proceed to shatter any record he wants to.

I say, let him.

As we saw last week, when Mike Bercovici and Co. destroyed the Oregon defense to the tune of 742 yards -- yet came away with a loss -- it's not what happens between the 20's that's important. ASU's ability to effectively run the ball is what gave Oregon fits; but when the chips were down, they went away from the ground game, and came up empty. Goff will, in all likelihood, do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Oregon won't divert from it's bend-an-insane-amount-and-hope-it-doesn't-shatter defense -- as much as it needs to -- so they need to focus on what will help secure a win.

And that's stopping Lasco and Muhammad. Lasco has the ability to slowly chip away at Oregon's confidence, much the way Stanford will do next week, if he grinds away to the tune of 4-5 yards per carry. The Ducks defensive line has been lights out in their ability to pressure the quarterback, but have still been vulnerable against the run. Bottle up Lasco and Muhammad? Let Goff do what he wants.

2. Establish Royce Freeman, and grind. Other than two productive runs against Arizona State, Oregon's ground game was abysmal. Now, most of that has to do with the style of defense ASU runs -- when there is that much blitzing, any and all holes up the middle are essentially gone. Throw in the fact that their best east-west option at running back, Taj Griffin, was out, and the running game was never going to be a factor.

This week, it's all different.

For Oregon to escape with a win, their best defense may in fact be a grind-it-out offense. Goff, Lasco and Co. can't hurt you if they're on the sidelines. And while Oregon's offense has never been predicated on bludgeoning away at an opponent, this may be the night they unleash a new wrinkle. Speed is great -- but bruises are more effective. Freeman is the quintessential back for this type of game: He gets stronger as the hits pile up, and can single-handedly break the Bears spirit if he finds a rhythm. If they can establish the run -- and not just home run plays -- everything else will fall into place. Receivers will be more open, Vernon Adams will have more time, and, most important, Cal's offense will be MIA.

3. Where have all of the fans gone? Winning, as mentioned above, can bring about it a malaise of fan reactions. It's natural, then, to lose the edge that propelled you to success; this is true with fans, too. As Oregon was climbing the ranks -- think 1994-2011ish -- Autzen stadium was, beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt, a nightmare for opposing teams. But with the blowout wins came a sense of comfort in the stands; no longer were their services needed to propel victories. That attitude, combined with a rough start to this season, has created a pathetic environment. Sitting in the stands for the Utah game, I looked around in disbelief at the laissez-faire attitude people had.

It's time to wake up, and be fans again.

Autzen is no longer feared; hell, it's barely even looked at as a challenge. The new-age of Oregon fan doesn't seem to understand the importance creating the fear factor. Think of what happened to Tiger Woods when he finally lost a Masters tournament after leading through three rounds, his competition didn't fear him like they used to. There was a chink in the armor. The same thing is happening in Eugene -- as Oregon slips slightly from dominant, teams smell blood. There's two ways to get the edge back: Win games, and cerate a domineering, viral environment, where opponents and their fans know they won't get out of unscathed (from a game point, obviously. No violence, please)

Prediction:

Oregon's secondary nabs a timnely pick, Royce Freeman goes off, and Oregon sets up a showdown (albeit a different kind than in the past) with Stanford.

Oregon 54  Cal 45