Before the season began, Oregon vs. Cal was circled on many calendars as one of the biggest Pac-12 games of the year with big things on the line. Now, over half way through the season, the match up has taken on an entirely different meaning. Instead of playing for a playoff birth, both teams are simply striving to become bowl eligible.
Welcome to college football in November.
While Oregon had a roller coaster ride through the first part of the season, they now seem to have some momentum after winning two games in a row with a healthy Vernon Adams Jr. at the wheel. Meanwhile, the Golden Bears came out swinging, winning their first 5 games of the season before inking 3 straight “L’s” in the stat books. On paper, both teams will enter Autzen Stadium with a 5-3 overall record ready to fight for that 6th win each will need to go bowling. With the same overall record, one might think this is a pretty close match up.
Not so fast.
It turns out Cal’s three losses came from respected conference foes, Utah, UCLA, and USC. Oregon has yet to play USC and will not play UCLA this year, so the only common opponent both teams have shared is Utah. Yes, we have to go back there.
Of course, Oregon was missing its starting quarterback for the majority of the game against Utah, however, Oregon’s defense took the brunt of the beating, allowing Utah to score 62 points on the Ducks’ home turf. Cal, on the other hand, despite losing to Utah by 6 points, managed to go on the road and hold the Utes’ dangerous offense to just 30 points. All this to say, in this case, records are very misleading. The Ducks will have to be extremely prepared as they face the Golden Bears tomorrow night.
So who and what will be the deciding factors in this year’s Oregon and Cal’s match up?
The Red Zone
Despite the fact the Ducks have played some pretty good offense this season, they have been less-than-successful scoring when playing in the red zone. After playing for the National Championship last season, the Ducks are currently ranked 71st in the entire country in red-zone offense. Ouch.
To put this in perspective, Utah, Washington State, UCLA, Stanford, Oregon State and Cal, who is ranked 23rd on the list, are all ranked higher than Oregon in this area. There’s no question that Vernon Adams Jr. can get the rock down the field but if the offense has to continue settling for field goals, it could be a long night in Eugene.
But what about the Red Zone Defense? Both teams are struggling, but again, Oregon is really struggling. Oregon is ranked all the way down the list at 117th while Cal sits at a not-much-better 87th.
Watch out! The battle to go bowling may just happen within the 20 yard mark.
With both teams boasting solid passing games this season, expect to see a shootout tomorrow night unless Oregon wisely chooses to slow things down a bit (see below). In any shootout, interceptions can be the x-factor.
This season, Vernon Adams has thrown 3 interceptions in 5 games while Jared Goff has thrown 11 interceptions over 8 games.
On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon has had snagged 9 interceptions while Cal has grabbed 12.
As is often the case, winning the interception battle will be key tomorrow night.
Oregon’s Defensive Line
Over the course of the season, Oregon’s defense has made even the most mediocre quarterbacks look like seasoned veterans. Now, in the final stretch of the season, they will face actual seasoned veterans. That should have Oregon fans feeling a bit nervous.
Cal quarterback, Jared Goff was in the early season Heisman chatter before his team took a step back. Though that chatter has been silenced, make no mistake, Goff will give Oregon’s defense a run for their money. Much like Washington State, Cal loves to air it out and with Oregon’s secondary woes, much of the burden will fall on the defensive line to pressure Goff. Fortunately, Oregon has the 2nd best sack leader in the conference in DeForest Buckner. Look for him to get after Goff in a big way, hopefully forcing at least a few bad throws, or better yet, a loss of yards. Oregon will need all the help it can get.
3rd Quarter Defense
Perhaps one of the most overlooked stats of the year is that of Oregon’s 3rd Quarter Defense. The numbers speak for themselves.
The Ducks will need to come out swinging after the half and finish all 4 quarters. All those rounds of OT are exciting but little Duck hearts can only take so much.
For the first time in a while, the tables have turned against Oregon’s fast-paced blur offense. Other teams used to have to pull out all the tricks to slow down the Ducks. Few were successful. This season, the Ducks have slowed themselves down. Sure, Adams Jr. needed to adjust to the system but it wasn’t him slowing things down. In fact, if anything, he could often be seen trying to hurry things up. As the season has progressed however, it appears the slowdown from the sideline was very likely intentional. It’s not rocket science if you think about it. The less time the offense is on the field, the more time the defense has to be on it. Is that really wise right now? In short, the less time Goff and Co. have on the field, the better it will be for Oregon.
Sure, modern day Ducks (prior to this season) haven’t boasted amazing defenses but they could play the part well enough to keep things at bay while the offense did their thing. They could bend and not break, as the Oregon culture asks for. This year though, there has been way too much breaking. Until things get better, somehow or someway, the Oregon game will have to slow down.
So what does that mean for tomorrow night?
Look for Royce to take a lot of carries. Now, that my friends is something Duck fans Shouldn’t feel nervous about.
See ya at Autzen for #Pac12AfterDark