10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Oregon -13.5, Over/Under: 54
It’s a Pac-12 North affair in Eugene as the formerly-undefeated (No. 9) Oregon Ducks look to avoid a second consecutive upset at the hands of the California Golden Bears, who toppled them in last season’s meeting in Berkley. Of course, that 21-17 shocker was the only victory of the previous campaign for Cal (1-4, 0-2 in Pac-12), who managed to compete in just four games in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a disappointing season for many reasons, with the positive momentum of an 8-5 finish, the third of (Head Coach) Justin Wilcox’s tenure, coming to a screeching halt. The Golden Bears had shown marked improvement in each of the three previous seasons under the 44-year old, going 20-18 from 2017 to 2019, with their first bowl win in four years putting a proverbial bow on that run. Following last year’s bizarre ride, expectations were tepidly high for this program coming into 2021, thanks in large part to an experienced group consisting of twelve returning starters, ten of which being “super seniors”, making use of the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA had granted following the pandemic. In fact, there was more turnover amongst Wilcox’s coaching staff than the actual roster, meaning that California were one of the more experienced teams within the Pac-12 coming into this season. So with all that said, why the hell are they a disappointing 1-4 thus far? The Bears have won just one of their first five games, and that lone victory has come against FCS resident, Sacramento State. Granted, they’ve fallen VERY short in many of their losses, with three of them coming by a combined fourteen points, but at the end of the day this is a team that has struggled to meet expectations, particularly on the defensive side of the football. Throughout Wilcox’s run in Berkley, they have transitioned from an offensive team to a defensive one, fielding one of the best units on the latter side of the football, finishing no lower than fourth in total defense in each of the last three years. However, this unit has regressed in 2021, yielding 27.6 points per game (85th in FBS) on 400.6 total yards, with the opposition picking on them in the passing game where they’ve amassed 281.3 yards on 7.1 yards per attempt and twice as many touchdowns (12) as takeaways (6). It’s clear that they really miss the presence of their most disruptive Defensive Lineman, Brett Johnson, who unfortunately suffered a broken hip during the Spring, ending his junior campaign before it even began. The Linebacker Corps has also missed (Senior) Kuony Deng (4 TKL) for the last three games due to injury, which has been a major issue; Wilcox has built this Defense with the Linebackers serving as it’s backbone, exhibiting a length and athleticism that has allowed them to disrupt passing lanes. Deng made the transition to Outside Linebacker in large part to the emergence of Muele Iosefa (27 TKL, 2 TFL), a true freshman who burst onto the scene last year starting half of the games. Ironically, the regression of the Defense has undermined the growth of the Offense, which was for all intents and purposes a work in progress last season under new Offensive Coordinator, Bill Musgrave. If you’re not familiar with Musgrave, the 53-year old is a former Quarterback armed with over twenty years of experience coaching in the National Football League, and his influence on this side of the football was the storyline that everyone in Northern California was paying attention to. Simply put, Musgrave didn’t receive enough time to implement his schemes and evaluate his personnel during the shortened 2020, though he would no doubt benefit from eight returning starters, chief among them (Senior Quarterback) Chase Garbers (62.9%, 1,245 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 7 TD, 5 INT), who was the Pac-12’s most experienced player at that position with twenty-three starts. Through these five games the improvement has been evident, with Cal averaging 24.2 points per game (98th in FBS) on 407.2 total yards, which is night and day from the meager 319.5 that they managed to produce a year ago. Garbers has completed 62.9% of his passes for 249.0 yards per game on a much-improved 7.3 yards per attempt (up from 5.7 in 2020), with seven touchdowns in comparison to five interceptions. Granted, his decision-making hasn’t been the greatest (particularly in close losses against Nevada and Washington), but he’s shown an ability to make plays with either his arm or legs, rushing for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns on forty-four carries. In fact, he only needs ninety-one more rushing yards to become the first California Quarterback to reach 1,000 yards in his career. Continuity has been key on this side of the football, with four returning starters on the Offensive Line and a senior-laden Receiving Corps led by Trevon Clark (16 REC, 322 YDS, 20.1 Y/R, 2 TD), who has been his favored big play threat downfield in averaging a whopping 20.1 yards per reception. This unit will have an opportunity to turn things around tonight with what would be a major upset, though as we touched upon in the opening, they’ve got recent history of doing just that; indeed, Wilcox’s troops will arrive to Autzen Stadium with an air of confidence after knocking off (then-No. 21) Oregon in last year’s regular season finale. After the Ducks opened their ledger with a field goal, the Bears ran off fourteen unanswered points, and while their opponent would strike back to make it 17-14 shortly before halftime, Garbers would nail (Senior Wideout) Nikko Remigio (18 REC, 100 YDS, 5.6 Y/R, 2 TD) for a 28-yard touchdown that would stand as the only score of the second half. The host’s Defense shut out the visiting side over the final thirty minutes of play, with the aforementioned Deng recovering a pair of crucial fumbles to keep them at bay. That triumph was their only victory in four meetings with Oregon during the Wilcox administration and their fourth against a ranked opponent. A win against the Ducks would stand as their highest-ranked upset since defeating (No. 8) Washington State back in 2017.
Meanwhile, through five games it’s a fair question to ask just who the hell is Oregon (4-1, 1-1 in Pac-12) in 2021? Are they the team that stormed into Columbus and handed (then-No. 3) Ohio State their first loss at the horseshoe since 2017? Or are they the side that narrowly escaped Fresno State in the Season Opener (31-24) or just fell to unranked Stanford in a 24-31 overtime thriller? Well, you may disappointed with the diplomatic approach, but the answer is both. Could it be that the reigning Pac-12 champions were a bit overhyped coming into 2021, after getting to play in the conference championship on a technicality thanks to a timely interference from COVID-19 which kept (North Division Champion) from participating? Or could it be that the league in general is so damned desperate to have a representative in the College Football Playoff, which they haven’t enjoyed in four years? Yes, both of those questions are correct, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t laud (Head Coach) Mario Cristobal for rebuilding the Ducks into arguably the most talented school on the west coast. 29-11 in five years in Eugene, the 51-year old has recruited like a machine during his tenure, stocking this roster with speed, athleticism, and depth at a wealth of positions, and with seven returning starters on both sides of the football they looked like the favorite to represent the North in Las Vegas come late December. However, there are two factors that have been working against them this season, with the most prominent being injuries and suspensions. The Defense has ben hit hardest in this regard, with (Starting Defensive Backs) Jamal Hill (13 TKL) and D.J. James (14 TKL, 1 PD) both out of action serving a suspension for an undisclosed off-field incident, while Cristobal has yet to disclose a return date for either. Furthermore, (Junior Safety) Bennett Williams (20 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 1 TD) , wo shares the team lead in interceptions (3), unfortunately broke his leg during the walk-through prior to the loss at the Cardinal, robbing the Secondary of yet another talent. And then there is (Defensive End) Kayvon Thibodeaux (8 TKL, 2 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), who by many metrics is to be the No. One Overall Pick in next Spring’s NFL Draft, despite appearing in just two games due to a lingering ankle injury suffered in the opener. The reigning Morris Trophy winner (given to the Pac-12’s top Defensive Lineman) is a freakish disruptive presence in the trenches, and his presence has been sorely-missed; Oregon has been gashed for an average of 409.0 total yards thus far, including 275.2 against the pass on 7.2 yards per attempt and 60.7% passing, along with another 133.8 versus the rush on 3.6 yards per carry. Granted, those figures are skewed by the 484 yards relinquished in their upset of the Buckeyes, though the great equalizer has been takeaways, which they’ve accumulated in bunches; Oregon has totaled THIRTEEN takeaways thus far, all but one of which coming in three contests, including three against Fresno State and FIVE in a 41-19 romp over Arizona. With that said, the proverbial well went dry at Stanford, which looks to become a real issue moving forward as the Offense just lost prolific Tailback, C.J. Verdell (77 CAR, 397 YDS, 5.2 Y/A, 5 TD) whose campaign also ended due to a leg injury suffered in the second half in Palo Alto. This one stings the most, for the fifth-year senior decided to return to the program after rushing for 2,920 yards and twenty-six touchdowns since 2018 despite being assured of being selected in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft. With fellow rusher, Sean Dollars having yet to see the field this season with a leg injury of his own, Cristobal suddenly has a Backfield lacking depth. And we haven’t even hit on the Quarterback position, where Anthony Brown (56.5%, 959 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 7 TD, 1 INT) has at least provided a steady hand. There was real uncertainty here after last year’s starter, Tyler Shough, opted to enter the Transfer Portal and move to Texas Tech, though Brown, himself a transfer from Boston College, featured in two of their seven games last season, completing 15-of-23 passes for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns while rushing for another forty yards and a pair of scores. The senior has been more game manager than playmaker thus far, though with elven touchdowns and just one turnover he has been the biggest proponent of Oregon’s league-best Plus-11 turnover margin, which is a MAJOR improvement over last year’s miserable mark of Minus-9, which ranked 121st in the country. With that said, that fateful afternoon at Stanford was NOT one of his finer moments; despite accounting for thirty-five of his side’s 228 rushing yards and all but one of their three ground scores, he put together a relatively pedestrian passing performance in completing just 14-of-26 passes for a meager 186 yards and an interception, ending the game on a failed 4th & 8 sailed over the head of it’s intended target. The loss deprived the Ducks of their first 5-0 start in eight years, with many pointing to the upset in all likelihood ending any hopes of advancing to the Playoff. While that certainly remains to be seen, for after all it’s been a very unpredictable season thus far, this team still has the goods to make a run for a second straight league title, though they’re going to have to reroute themselves after so many injuries.