At long last, Pac-12 play is here for the California Golden Bears and in come the dreaded Oregon Ducks of Eugene. Last season, the Bears found themselves pitted against the Ducks in the middle of facing what seemed like an endless cycle of future NFL quarterbacks. Shea Patterson, formerly of Old Miss, and Sam Darnold provided a huge test for our young—but surprising—defense. Justin Herbert version 3.0 now represents an arguably bigger test as the Bears will face what looks to be one of the better Pac-12 offenses in this young season.
Before we take a deeper look at the Oregon offense, let’s journey back and dive deeper into how we got here. On December 7th, 2016, the Oregon Ducks hired Willie Taggart—a coach who famously turned around the USF Bulls’ program and was a disciple of the quite possibly very overrated Jim Harbaugh (never thought I would write that sentence). Taggart was brought in as a big-splash hire ready to bring back the Oregon glory days and restart the Chip Kelly era. Well, that didn’t exactly pan out. Taggart brought massive expectations and underwhelmed against those, ultimately deciding to jump ship to the Florida State Seminoles last offseason, where he so far he’s done much of the same.
The 2018 season has been one of redemption for the Ducks to date with first-year head coach Mario Cristobal bringing back an offensive prowess that was absent the last few years. Justin Herbert looks the part of a future NFL star and the Oregon offense will be a huge test for the Bears defense that, by all appearances, has made the leap to a top defense in the Pac-12 this season. Saddle up, folks—this should be fun.
Oregon 2018 in Review
One half—or better yet, three quarters—into Oregon’s match-up against Stanford last week, this preview could have looked a lot different. The Ducks were handily beating a top=10 Stanford team and all signs pointed to them meeting Cal with a beautiful, unblemished record. Oregon managed to blow that game, casting doubt on their coaching staff going forward and leaving them looking for redemption against Cal.
The advanced stats on the Oregon offense illustrate an upper echelon unit and they certainly have passed the eye test in every game this year. The Oregon offense ranks 19th according to S&P+ and their past four games showcase a team that is eager to throw a crooked number on the scoreboard. If there was one criticism for the Ducks, it would be that their schedule hasn’t exactly been stacked with a tremendously tough out of conference schedule. The Bowling Green Falcons, San Jose StateSpartans, and Portland State Vikings don’t exactly terrify anyone. Yet if you paired the Ducks 2018 offense with Cal’s 2018 defense, you would most likely have one of the more dominant teams in the entire NCAA.
Player Profile: Justin Herbert
At the end of the fourth quarter of the Oregon–Stanford game, Justin Herbert was 25–27 for 331 yards and a touchdown. Say what you will about Stanford’s lackluster defense so far this year, 25 of 27 is nothing short of unreal against a Pac-12 opponent. This is the second-straight year where Justin Herbert has been the focal point for the Cal defense heading into the season’s match-up. He is consistently graded at the top of most experts’ 2019 NFL draft board and has started this season on a torrid pace.
Herbert’s season passer rating is 179.4—for reference, Chase Garbers is a 149.3 on 60 fewer attempts—and in the season opener against Bowling Green, he accounted for six touchdowns. Cristobal is opening up his offense to Herbert and so far, he is thriving.
If there was one negative and a big reason for optimism for Cal fans coming into Saturday’s match-up, it is Herbert’s propensity to turn over the football. Outside of the Portland State match-up, Herbert has an interception in each game and two interceptions each against San Jose State and Bowling Green. I’d be stunned if the Cal defense didn’t come away with at least one pick utilizing their disguises against an overeager offense hoping to right itself after stalling late against Stanford.
A few bold—but probably inaccurate—predictions for Saturday
- Oregon will massively underestimate this Cal defense. Cristobal will throw and throw and throw against the Bears and I don’t expect many points early. The Cal defense is the best in the Pac-12 at forcing three-and-outs and are second in the country in interceptions. While the turnover number might regress, the growth in this defense is in their ability to force opponents out of their offensive gameplan early. I’d be surprised if Oregon found the endzone more than once in the first half.
- Justin Herbert will disrupt as a runner on Saturday. 6’6”, 233 isn’t exactly the most maneuverable frame for a quarterback but Justin Herbert is an athlete. While he hasn’t seen as many attempts this year as in years past, he has good speed and cannot be taken lightly when the pocket breaks down.
- The game will be won in the trenches. One of my big question marks headed into the 2018 season was how Cal would respond to the loss of James Looney and a few other difference-makers on their defensive line. So far, the likes of Chris Palmer, Zeandae Johnson, Alex Funches, Lone Toailoa, and Tevin Paul have done well breaking down the pocket and getting sacks on the opposing quarterback. The Oregon offensive line was opening massive holes against the Stanford defensive front last week and the Bears will have their toughest test to date Saturday night. This will be the match-up to watch in order to gauge just how well Cal’s defense can bottle up the Ducks and ultimately could determine the outcome of the game.
How many points will the Oregon offense score against Cal?
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50 or more