STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Scouting the run offense: Still listed as the backup, freshman CJ Verdell has all but assumed the role of lead back for Oregon in the running game. After last week’s 20-carry, 115-yard performance against Stanford, Verdell leads the Ducks with 59 carries for 314 yards on the season.
He’s shown a good combination of power and speed, looking like a young LaMichael James. Most impressively, Verdell is a patient runner who allows the play to develop in front of him before hitting the hole. Tony Brooks-James is the starter and a more complete back, being a threat in the passing game.
Combined, these two make up a formidable one-two punch that keeps pressure on opposing defenses regardless of who’s in the game.
As a team, the Ducks average 205 rushing yards per game on 4.39 yards per carry. Quarterback Justin Herbert is also a threat in the run game, rushing for 141 yards prior to yards lost being taken out for sacks.
This is a unit that can beat you in so many ways, particularly when they get within the five-yard line and 6-foot-1, 210-pound Cyrus Habibi-Likio enters the game. He’s Oregon’s bulldozer, leading the Ducks with five touchdowns on seven carries for 13 yards in the season.
The Golden Bears give up 131.67 rushing yards per game, 45th in the nation, but their 3.41 yards per carry ranks 29th.
Middle linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk is Cal’s best rush defender, an athletic linebacker who enjoys playing at the line of scrimmage. His ability to diagnose the play and run through the line of scrimmage is what’s helped limit opposing offenses.
The Ducks are a balanced offense between running and throwing the ball, making them difficult to defend. Because Cal will be so focused on stopping Herbert, the running game will be open to holes in the Golden Bears defense. A big rushing day could be on the horizon.
Scouting the pass offense: Oregon’s passing game last week against Stanford’s vaunted defense was impressive. In regulation, Herbert went 25-of-27 for 331 yards and one score while receiver Dillon Mitchell had a career day, finishing with 14 catches for 239 yards.
On the season, Herbert is completing 63.2-percent of his passes for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns. His mastery of Oregon’s offense and ability to make every throw is what’s allowing the Ducks to average 46.5 points per game, 13th best in the nation.
After a slow start, Mitchell erupted last week, becoming the No. 1 receiver so many expected of him entering this season. He now leads the Ducks with 20 catches for 337 yards.
“Basically, the coordinators, and even Justin (Herbert), weren't showing everything in the first three games," Mitchell said. "As a player like myself, it was definitely hard for the first three games, because I didn’t see the ball as much.”
Johnny Johnson III leads Oregon with four touchdown catches, showing his ability as a big-play specialist. Jaylon Redd is second with three scores, emerging as a legitimate threat from the slot position.
The Ducks have a multitude of weapons who all add something special to the offense. Six different players have caught touchdown passes on the season, making it difficult for opposing defenses to key on one player.
Cal will test Herbert and his receivers. The Golden Bears are second in the nation with seven interceptions. Junior safeties Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis have five interceptions on the year, combining to be one of the best ball-hawking duos in the country.
On the year, Cal is surrendering 170.7 yards per game through the air and have given up just three touchdowns. But, the Golden Bears are limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 91.83 rating, ranking fifth best in the country.
This will be a big matchup to see who emerges victorious. Either Cal will force Herbert into mistakes or the Ducks will seamlessly pick apart the Golden Bears.
Scouting the run defense: If there’s one thing the Ducks are really good at, it’s stopping the run. Oregon ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards per game, giving up just 75.5 yards while ranking third in yards per carry at 2.13.
Nose tackle Jordon Scott is the anchor of the rush defense. He was a terror in the Stanford game, often getting penetration and blowing up the play before it had a chance to get started.
Defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins are the big names, either setting the edge and forcing running backs into the middle of the line or making the play themselves. Combined, the have 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks on the year.
Middle linebackers Troy Dye and Kaulana Apelu lead the team in tackles with 25 and 24, respectively. They’ve done a good job of assessing plays and reacting quickly, making it very difficult for opposing teams to find traction rushing.
Backup defensive linemen Gary Baker and Drayton Carlberg had a big hand in limiting Stanford star Bryce Love last week.
“The combination all of those guys playing together results in some really productive play," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. "We did a really nice job in the run-game… We’re certainly continuing to take a step forward in the physicality of our play up-front."
The Golden Bears will attack Oregon with a rushing attack that features four players averaging over 40 yards per game.
Running back Patrick Laird is the workhorse, with more than double the carries of the next highest on the roster. Marcel Dancy provides Laird with a break, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
Quarterbacks Brandon McIlwain and Chase Garbers are legit threats running the ball, each averaging five yards per carry. Garbers is the presumed starter but both quarterbacks will see time on the field.
To slow down the Cal rushing attack and force the Golden Bears to the air, Oregon must stay disciplined and not allow Cal to get outside. If the Ducks can limit Cal in the rushing game, it’ll bode really well in getting the win.
Scouting the pass defense: After last week’s debacle in which Oregon’s defensive backs couldn’t stop Stanford in the fourth quarter, the Ducks are in desperate need of a good game. They need to prove that they can stand pat with the rush defense and force turnovers instead of being the crutch of the defense.
The Ducks are giving up 251.3 yards through the air with nine touchdowns on the season. The defensive backs have just two interceptions on the season but 13 pass break-ups. This is a unit that needs to find a way to come together and get off the field.
Thomas Graham Jr. has had an up and down season, leading the team with five pass break-ups but getting beat on the inside too often or failing to set the edge with running backs on the outside. He’s Oregon’s most experienced cornerback so he needs to be the one to make a statement that enough is enough.
Good thing for the Ducks is that they’re going to get opportunities to make plays come Saturday night. The Golden Bears are going to struggle running the ball so throwing it will be the only way they can keep pace with the Ducks’ offense.
Garbers has thrown for six touchdowns and two interceptions on the year, being the main threat through the air. He had his career-best game two weeks ago when he threw for 224 yards on 20-of-25 passing and three scores against Idaho State.
Jordan Duncan and Kanawai Noa lead the Golden Bears with 20 catches for 240 yards and three scores while Laird is a legitimate threat, leading the team with 14 catches out of the backfield.
To take pressure off Garbers from Oregon’s vaunted pass rush, the Golden Bears will throw a lot of screen passes to keep the Ducks defense honest. It will be up to Graham and his defensive backs to make sure that Cal doesn’t find a rhythm through the air.