Unless you're a Stanford fan here to revel in schadenfreude, you'll probably agree that Cal football hasn't been much fun to watch the last few weeks. If you are a Stanford fan here to revel in schadenfreude, now is really not a good time. We can talk next week.
A game against Oregon State won't treat the causes of the Bears' struggles (which doesn't need to be rehashed here), but it might at least provide a few hours of enjoyable football for Cal fans. The Beavers, you see, are where we were in 2013: they have a promising new coach, a depleted roster, and a whole bunch of losses. They've also been dealing with a long list of injuries, including a hurt knee for one of the Beavers' two freshman quarterbacks. This team has improved over the course of the season, but a 41-0 drubbing by UCLA last week revealed how far they have left to go.
The Beavers' defense has struggled in particular, giving up 35 points per game (99th FBS) and allowing 460 yards of offense to their opponents (102nd FBS). Could an easier matchup at home be what Jared Goff needs to get his magic touch back?
The Story so Far...
Everyone knew this would be a rebuilding year for Oregon State. Wisconsin's Gary Andersen was a promising choice to replace head coach Mike Riley, but he would have to contend with huge personnel losses. On defense alone, the Beavers graduated their top three defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs. That's nine contributors from an already thin defense that was about to restart recruiting from scratch. Even with the defensive minds of Andersen and assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake (hired away from the same positions at Utah), this was going to be a project.
The Beavers took care of business against Weber State in the opener, but couldn't keep up with Michigan in their next game. They beat San Jose State before hitting trouble in conference play. Stanford, Arizona, and Washington State all scored 40+ points against the Beavers, forcing the coaches to do some shuffling on defense. The strategy appeared to work, as they played Colorado close in a 17-13 loss. They held Utah to 27 points the next week, the Utes third-lowest point total. It wasn't enough though, as the Beavers offense only managed 12 points of their own.
A rainy matchup against UCLA last week was a different story. The cracks in Oregon State's secondary broke open, and Josh Rosen shot through them with 2 TDs and 333 yards of passing. The Beavers' front seven didn't do much better, allowing Paul Perkins and Soso Jamabo to do the kinds of things they did to the Bears a few weeks ago. The final damage? UCLA racked up 674 yards and scored 41 points on the hapless Beavers.
Starters: Sr #48 Jaswha James, Sr #99 Kyle Peko, So #95 Baker Pritchard
Disclaimer: I haven't found an updated depth chart, so these are best guesses. Coach Andersen has said that he'll be treating the last three weeks like bowl game prep, so expect lots of young guys to get reps as well. OSU fans feel free to jump in with corrections in the comments!
James is the only starter who played any time last year, now that DE Lavonte Barnett has been bumped to the second string. The new guys have struggled to disrupt the offense, producing a paltry 3% havoc rate. These three guys have combined for just 3.5 sacks, while Barnett co-leads the team with two of his own.
One quirk to watch will be OSU's tendency to mess with the offensive line by yelling calls pre-snap. UCLA complained about the practice, but Andersen insists that it's legal, so watch out for more false starts than usual for the Bears. The Beavers have experimented with some four man fronts but will likely stick to three linemen considering Cal's difficulty rushing the football with six men in the box.
Starters: Fr #55 Manase Hungalu, Jr #8 Rommel Mageo, Jr #35 Caleb Saulo, Fr #47 Bright Ugwoegbu
A more likely defensive strategy for the Beavers is the 3-2-6, which they used heavily against Washington State's Air Raid. At the same time, the number of available defensive backs is decreasing every week (we'll come back to that in a second), so they may not be able to consistently field six healthy bodies.
The linebackers are led by Mageo and Saulo, both of whom saw eleven games worth of action last season. Mageo is the production leader of this defense, owning two sacks, forced fumbles, and interceptions, as well as the team lead in tackles. The Bears should be able to key in on him though, as production takes a steep dive after him.
Starters: Jr #17 Cryil Noland-Lewis, Jr #12 Kendall Hill, Fr #3 Brandon Arnold, So #4 Justin Strong, Sr #15 Larry Scott
First let's talk about who's not playing. This unit was already thin on returners, and even more so on returners with significant experience. Then they lost CB Treston Decoud to injury against Colorado and Dwayne Williams against UCLA. Williams is unlikely to play after being taken off the field in an ambulance, and Treston practiced in a no-contact jersey this week. Safety Justin Strong was also held out of practice this week, bit I don't know if he'll play. I'm assuming Larry Scott will be back at cornerback after a smaller injury early in the season, but I'm not sure there either.
The secondary, though obviously weakened by injury, has been a big problem for the Beavers this season. Oregon State is allowing opponents to gain big chunks of yardage, and is struggling to get takeaways (108th FBS). The inability of the front seven to get pressure certainly doesn't help.
OSU has all the looks of a multi-year rebuilding process. Andersen and Sitake have both had plenty of success at previous jobs, but year one has been rough all around. They'll recruit their guys and implement their system, but it won't happen between now and Saturday. Cal's offense, for its part, has been looking increasingly dysfunctional. There should be a big talent gap in this game, but it's still imperative that the Bears find the consistency that they've lacked in the last few weeks. It's hard to beat anyone if you keep going three and out. My prediction? The Bears finally punch their ticket to go bowling, but the offense may not inspire a lot of confidence for Big Game week.