Remember when Cal was finally going to end the near decade long streak against Oregon and all of us old blues were going to get warm and fuzzy feelings inside? Well, for the first half of last year’s matchup it sure did seem like that was going to happen.
What proceeded to unfold was one of the most grueling, fist clenching, hair pulling performances of the Sonny Dykes era. In fact, it may have been this game above all others that signaled doom for Sonny D in Berkeley. Oregon was enduring one of their worst starts to a season in years and the game did not start any better for the Ducks. They fell to a 31–14 deficit at the half and a 34–14 deficit with about ten minutes left in the third quarter. After that point in time, everything changed.
Cal played their standard brand of historically awful defense and the Ducks, led by Justin Herbert, rattled off three straight touchdowns to take the lead from the Bears with barely two minutes gone in the fourth quarter. Everyone gives the Warriors a hard time for blowing their 3–1 lead—Cal blew a 20-point lead in less than fifteen minutes. Cal 1, Warriors 0.
While the outcome would eventually be a favorable one for Cal, the emergence of Justin Herbert in that game became an important moment in an otherwise forgetful season for the Ducks. The 2017 Oregon team comes in with a new coach at the helm in Harbaugh protege Willie Taggart and seem to have gone right back to being the usual threat in the North.
Taggart, similarly to Wilcox, recruited a very talented staff to join him in Eugene. He inherits a team full of not only talented players but many with multiple years of experience. It also appears he has successfully reunited the locker room despite a few notable off-field incidents during the spring. Those fans hoping for a long Oregon rebuild are going to be mightily disappointed come fall.
Oregon Players to Watch
Justin Herbert, QB
Oregon looked like an entirely different team after Herbert had his breakout game against Cal. The Ducks went on to beat Arizona State and pull off a big upset against #12 Utah on the road in November. Herbert finished his 2016 campaign with nearly 2,000 yards passing and a 19–4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Herbert is not limited to just throwing the ball—he has a propensity to escape the pocket and broke loose for several big runs last season. He is rumored to have added 15 pounds in the offseason and grown as a leader. In combination with Taggart’s diverse offense, the fact that Herbert is only a sophomore is daunting.
Royce Freeman, RB
Royce Freeman deserves to be on any preseason watch list based on talent alone. Yet the issue was last year he looked lost. For whatever reason, in the game against Cal it almost seemed like he had totally checked out. Backup Tony Brooks-James ran all over the Bears while Royce made the historically bad Bears defense look elite with a line of 15 carries for 10 yards. That isn’t likely to happen this year. Taggart has a strong reputation for running the ball and creating isolation match-ups for his running backs. The pairing of Freeman and Brooks-James is as lethal as any running back duo in the Pac-12 and should be a nightmare for the Bears defensive line.
What to expect against Cal
This season will serve as a homecoming for both the Bears and Ducks as each team hopes to see a return to their roots. Cal matches up well against Oregon, particularly as the Ducks defense was one of the worst in college football last year.
There are very few things good about the chart above. An optimist may mention that the Ducks did do a decent job at limiting big plays through the air, but when you let your arch nemesis Washington put up 70 points, something is drastically wrong. The good news for the Ducks is Jim Leavitt made the jump from Colorado to Oregon and he brought a new world of defensive stability to the Buffaloes last season. He inherits a young defense, but also one that has plenty of experience due to the tire fire that was last season. Similarly to Cal, if the Ducks can right their defensive woes, their offense should carry them to a solid mark in 2017.
Oregon will find themselves matched up with a very different Cal team than the one who beat them a year ago. The offense will be more balanced and the defense should be vastly improved against the run. While Herbert looks to be the heir apparent in Oregon, he is still very young and could stumble out of the gate, which favors the Bears getting Oregon early in the season.
Consider this year’s game an early preview of what should be an exciting match-up over the next few years.