Coming off last week’s devastating loss to No. 7 Stanford, Oregon (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) has no time to delve on the “what ifs.” The Ducks hit the road for the first time this year when they travel to Berkeley, Calif., where they’ll see undefeated and ranked 24th in the country, Cal (3-0).
The Golden Bears enter Saturday’s matchup in a prime position to announce to the rest of the conference that they’re legit. Not only are they facing No. 19 Oregon, they are coming off a bye week — meaning they’ve had two weeks to prepare for Ducks star quarterback Justin Herbert and Oregon’s offense.
The good news for Cal is that its strength matches up with Oregon’s strength. The Ducks like to throw the ball and are proficient doing it, with Herbert having a bevy of talented pass catchers who all have potential to affect the game. The Golden Bears counter with one of the better secondaries in the Pac-12, a unit that is giving up 170.7 passing yards per game (4th in the Pac-12) and a quarterback rating of 91.83 (2nd in the Pac-12, 5th in the nation).
Where the Golden Bears excel at is interceptions. They have seven on the year — which is tied for third in the nation and first in the conference. Junior safeties Jaylin Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis have a combined five interceptions on the year, making them one of the best ball-hawking duos in the country.
Both players have tremendous closing speed and ball-skills. Quarterbacks often think they see an opening, but the speed of each player narrows that gap and they have no problem going into the air to outjump an opposing receiver.
The defense is more than just those two.
Middle linebackers Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk lead the team in tackles with 39 and 28, respectively.
Weaver has been particularly impressive. His 8.3 solo tackles per game ranks second in the nation while his 13 total tackles per game is seventh. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Weaver shows good instincts and just a general nose for the football, similar to Oregon’s Troy Dye.
Kunaszyk is remembered by Oregon fans as the player who ruined Herbert’s career day two years ago. With the Ducks 51-48 in double overtime, Herbert — who already had thrown for six touchdown passes — forced a ball into coverage that Kunaszyk intercepted to end the game and give Cal the win. He too has had a solid start to the season, showing his ability to get into opponents’ backfields with his 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks on the season.
Overall, this is a unit that ranks 16th in the nation in total defense (302.3 total yards) and third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (19.3). It’s a very disciplined group that will be able to test Herbert and his receivers. The Golden Bears will try to bait Herbert into throws to receivers that may appear to be open but in reality, aren’t.
The Ducks must stay disciplined in attacking offensively and not take too many big shots down the field. If Oregon takes the small chunks each time and moves methodically down the field, Cal will be in trouble. But the big plays and long throws could be dangerous knowing Hawkins and Davis will be waiting.
Offensively, the Golden Bears are expected to run the ball against Oregon, trying to eat up clock and keep the ball out of Herbert’s hands.
Running back Patrick Laird is the team’s leading rusher with 144 yards on 49 carries (both team-highs). At 6-foot, 205 pounds, Laird is more of a bruiser when running the ball, not often showing the straight-line speed to break open the big run.
Starting quarterback Chase Garbers is a legitimate dual-threat quarterback, showing great athleticism by rushing for 126 yards on the season. He has no issue tucking the ball and running if the if his first or second option isn’t open. Backup quarterback Brandon McIlwain, who is expected to play, is also a dual-threat quarterback with 129 rushing yards on the season.
The trouble with facing a running quarterback is that they have the potential to break open the big play or keep drives alive with their legs. To limit that, the Ducks must stay disciplined and in their lanes. My guess is that defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will imply some sort of “spy” option from either Troy Dye or Kaualana Apelu. It’ll be up to Dye or Apelu to keeps tabs on the quarterback at all times and keep him in the pocket. But if he does decide to tuck it and run, Dye or Apelu must be able to limit his effectiveness.
Typically not much of a thrower, Garbers showed last week against Idaho State that he is capable of moving the offense through the air — he finished 20-of-25 for 224 yards and three scores against the Bengals.
Seeing as how Cal loves to take advantage of overly aggressive pass-rushers, the screen pass is one its biggest weapons in the air. His top target is Laird out of the backfield with a team-high 14 catches on the year.
Three other players have at least nine catches on the season. Jordan Duncan is the big play threat, averaging 14.1 yards per catch with two touchdowns in his nine catches. Kanawai Noa has 11 catches for 113 yards while Vic Wharton III has 11 catches for 76 yards.
Much like Stanford, Cal is expected to struggle running the ball against Oregon’s top-5 rush defense. That means Garbers and his receivers will have to move the ball against the Ducks’ struggling secondary. How much success Cal finds through the air will be what determines if this game is over in the first half or close deep into the second.