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Cal vs. Oregon State Defensive Preview

Can the Bears recover to out-maneuver the Beaver defense?

Stanford v Oregon State Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Alas! We reach the final game in Memorial Stadium of the 2017 Cal football season. There have been unexpected joys, heartbreaking defeats, and the always eventful Berkeley protestor rushing the field. For the final time, the seniors take the field in Strawberry Canyon for a game day. Let’s take a look at the Oregon State defense!

2017 Defensive Highlights (To-Date):

Previous Opponents: Colorado St. (27-58), Portland St. (35-32), Minnesota (14-48), Wazzu (23-52), UW (7-42), USC (10-38), Colorado (33-36), LSJU (14-15)

Total Yards: 3,570 (2,088 pass, 1,482 rush)

Opponent 3rd Down Efficiency: 54/107 (50%)

Opponent Red Zone Scoring: 89% (69% TD)

Until two games ago, I found myself drawing unfortunate comparisons between this 2017 Beavers team and the Bears’ good ole 2013 season-long thrashing. But to quote Supreme Leader Snoke from Star Wars VII, “There’s been an awakening.” Well...maybe not quite the level of awakening as in the movie, but definitely some marked improvement against Colorado and Stanfurd.

Under the leadership of interim HC Cory Hall (who attended the same high school as the author in Bakersfield, CA), the Oregon State defense, especially the secondary, has seen growth. Key plays last week by safety Omar Hicks-Onu and LB Bright Ugwoegbu halted two surging Stanford drives. Also keep an eye on the Beavers leading tackler Manase Hungalu (61 tackles, 5.0 TFL) and ILB Jonathan Willis (5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) to challenge Cal’s intermittently porous O-line.

The Beavers have also had particular trouble in the red zone. Yielding points on 89% of drives and touchdowns on 69%, opponents have capitalized on the struggling Oregon State defense. However, as mentioned previously, improvements to the defense held Stanfurd to 6 points in the first half with a missed field goal, so the red zone defense may not be as much of an Achilles heel as the stats suggest.

Keys to Cal’s Success

Let’s start with some high school math: if you have two football programs and each program has potentially two different teams that could show up to play, how many combinations of teams could you see? The answer is 4. So which of the four combinations will take the field on Saturday for Senior Day in Berkeley? Based on what I witnessed last week in Boulder, your guess is as good as mine.

First, the offensive line needs to limit Ross Bowers’ exposure in what is left of the pocket. Simple, right? The Bears have consistently let defensive lines have direct paths to Bowers, pressuring him to often make regrettable decisions with the pass. Oregon State is not a powerhouse pass rush defense, so Cal needs to use this game to shelter Ross well and give him time to fully survey the field.

Secondly, use the rush to limit long 3rd downs and 4th downs. My lifetime motto for the Bears is “3rd and long.” Exciting (gut-wrenching?) it might have been to see the Bears convert what felt like 200 3rd and 4th downs for a touchdown against Colorado, it’s an unsustainable game model. Picking up 5 to 7 yards on the ground in the first two downs sets up Ross much better than a 1st down incompletion and 1 yard rushing gain on 2nd. Granted, that’s much easier said than done, it just appears that Baldwin has been quicker to lean on the pass in early down situations than the rush.

Final Thoughts

As far as I’m concerned, this is a must-win for the Bears. Without a victory on Saturday, the Bears are forced to win-out against the junior university down on the farm and UC L.A. if they want to be within solid bowl eligibility. Granted, our strength of schedule could tip us in bowl talks with 5 wins, but I still want those 6 wins.

That being said, the Bears should avoid psyching themselves out about beating a team with a worse record. Teams tend to put undue pressure on themselves to win games they know they can win, often yielding the opposite result. Use your athletic tools, trust the system and the coaches, and go out there and play for all the analysts who picked you last in the conference.

What are your thoughts? Will the Bears get the job done against the Beavers?