Oregon St. returns home this Saturday night for Homecoming, their first home Saturday game since September 20 against San Diego St. The Beavers have lost 3 of their 4 games since downing the Aztecs that night, and look who is coming to the party! It's the California Golden Bears, who have been Oregon St.'s personal slump buster opponent in recent years.
The Beavers have blown the Bears off the field the last 2 years, won 6 of the last 7 meetings, including 3 in a row at Reser, and 12 of the last 15 contests.
But this year's Bears are more Golden than recent editions, and come into the game with a 4-4 overall record. That's as many wins already in 8 games as California has had the last 2 seasons put together, 24 games!
An improved "Bear Raid" passing offense that is averaging 371.5 yards per game, 4th in the country, is the main reason. California has had 55, 45, 59, & 60 point days already this year.
In order to get a deeper look at how the Bears are doing, we got together with a couple of the writers from down at California Golden Blogs, to get a scouting report. Thanks Nick and Boom!
You can also see our answers to their questions here.
1. First and foremost, do you have any offensive linemen to spare? Oregon St. appreciates your sending TE Jacob Wark up to us, and if there are any healthy extra sturdy Bears you aren't using who can block, Coach Mike Riley would be interested in chatting.
Nick Kranz: Unfortunately, no. Cal is vastly improved from last year, but depth is still a dream for the future. Cal's offensive line play sigificantly declined when sophomore left guard Chris Borayo missed the UCLA game, and then picked up when he returned against Oregon. Most units on the team simply can't afford any injuries without a significant decline in performance.
boomtho: Hah, well we definitely don't have any more TE's, seeing as that position doesn't really exist in the Bear Raid. As for our OL, while we've had decent (I certainly won't say good) luck thus far this season (KNOCK ON ALL THE WOOD), given prior seasons I think we'll hang onto our depth if that's OK with you guys!
2. On an only slightly more serious note, Jared Goff has taken a big step forward this year, with a big improvement in accuracy and decreased interception. Not coincidentally, California has won some games, and been in the hunt in a couple of the losses. Is this mostly a case of a freshman growing up with experience, or has coach Sonny Dykes made any significant changes to help bring this about?
Nick Kranz: Goff has absolutely improved in pretty much all phases of the game - accuracy, reading the defense, making quick decisions, manipulating the pocket - you name it, Goff has gotten better. That said, improvements from Cal's offensive line have helped him out considerably. Goff has taken less sacks/game this year and is facing fewer plays in which he has to hurry his throws or take a hit from a pass rusher. As a result he has been able to go deep with more confidence, and the explosiveness of Cal's offense has improved dramatically. Meanwhile, the running game has gone from invisible to occasionally dangerous, and that takes pressure off as well.
boomtho: Despite the gaudy stats, Goff flew under the radar a bit last year because the team was so bad (1-11 was not really a misrepresentation of our talent or performance). He's definitely taken a step forward with a bunch of improvements: better grasp of the offense, much improved mobility (both in the pocket and scrambling), slightly improved touch on deep balls, and better accuracy. All that said, I think it's been more of an evolution for Goff than a step change. Where we've seen dramatic improvement is on the OL, primarily in run blocking but also in pass protection as well.
3. The Bears' wide receivers were widely regarded as one of the best position groups in the conference even last year, and now they seem to be living up to that reputation. They face an Oregon St. defense this week that's one of the better ones in the Pac-12, with 3 seniors in the secondary. How do you see this matchup playing out? Which California receiver is most likely to have the biggest day?
Nick Kranz: A key question this week will be health. Trevor Davis will definitely be out after suffering a scary neck injury against UCLA. Meanwhile, Bryce Treggs, Kenny Lawler and Chris Harper are all dealing with various nagging injuries that caused them to miss parts of the Oregon game. All three practiced this week and are expected to suit up, but it's a little unclear if they are 100%.
That said, Cal expects to get receivers open against every team in the conference. Only Washington managed to hold down the Cal offense, and that was probably more a factor of the Washington defensive line eating up Cal's offensive line and not giving Goff much time to get throws off. Cal's WR group goes 7 or 8 deep in terms of productive targets. When you throw in Daniel Lasco, who has become a reliable target out of the backfield, then you're generally throwing too much for most defenses to completely cover. Somebody is going to get open, and if Goff has time he will usually find them.
boomtho: It's going to be a fun matchup, for sure. The Bears WR corps is a little dinged up with Davis' scary neck injury holding him out. Treggs was injured on the first series last game and Harper is battling some of the residual impact of his blatantly targeting (despite the non-call) hit vs UCLA. That being said, this is our position of best depth, with guys like Anderson, Powe, and Harris all capable of being solid contributors, especially in the intermediate passing game.
It's also tough to call who will have the biggest game. If you look by game at who has had the most catches, it's changed a lot: Lawler (5), Harper (5), Treggs (5), Anderson (7), Treggs (10), Treggs (7), Harper (5), Harris (9). My total guess is that Treggs will have the most catches, though there's no basis for that at all.
4. On the other side of the ball, Oregon St. has been struggling offensively, though they have faced 3 of the best defenses in the country in their 3 losses, and have a very young wide receiver group, as well as an offensive line held together by tape. But the Bears defense is the worst in the country against the pass. What will California try to do to slow down Sean Mannion?
Nick Kranz: I don't expect Cal's defense to do anything particularly fancy. The Bears will send an occasional blitz, but they will mostly rush 3 or 4 and hope that their secondary can make a play or at least keep the opponent's recievers in front. Blitzing was more common earlier in the season but when it became clear that sending extra men didn't really create more pressure the coaches seemed to back off from that approach.
There's no good way to sugarcoat things: Cal has issues in the secondary. I actually like both starting safeties, Stefan McClure and Michael Lowe, but Cal has rotated just about every possible option in at cornerback and nickel packages without any great success. When McClure was injured against Colorado and Washington State, the secondary totally collapsed and allowed Connor Halliday to break a record that you may have heard about.
boomtho: The Bears defensive problems, IMO, come down to two problems: talent and depth. Our starting secondary and DL are decent, though certainly not worldbeaters. Once you get past the first string, however, we're playing a lot of JUCO guys (in their first year in FBS, no less), FR/SO, and less highly recruited players (we were starting Griffin Piatt, a walk on former WR, at safety before he tore his ACL for the season).
I think new DC, Art Kaufman, has done a decent job trying to push schematic advantages when he can, but there's only so much scheme can do to cover up for lack of talent or depth. I think the Bears will try to keep it mostly vanilla and avoid blitzing too much (we can't consistently generate a pass rush whether we blitz or not) and force Mannion to dink and dunk us down the field.
5. Speaking of that defense, injuries and Andy Buh were blamed for last year. And yet despite firing Buh in favor of Art Kauffman, the situation is even worse (in addition to their pass defense problems, total defense and scoring defense are both in the bottom 5 nationally as well). Is there a solution that doesn't start with recruiting a drastically different cast of defensive players? How did things go so far off the rails defensively for the Bears?
Nick Kranz: I wouldn't blame anybody for being skeptical, but the honest truth is that Cal's defense is better than last year. Granted, it's not terribly impressive to be better than a defense that was probably the worst major conference defense in the country, but progress is progress.
Last year was a worst case scenario in every way. There was limited talent available. The best talent (and even plenty of the marginal talent) got hurt. Beyond that, players received awful coaching and were regularly completely out of position. The ONLY reasons Cal's defense this year appears worse than Cal's defense last year is because THIS year, opposing offenses have to try to score for 60 minutes. Last year, opponents shut things down and took starters out after halftime because every game was functionally over.
This year, Cal still has major issues with inexperience and lack of talent, and some injury issues. But the main difference is that players are generally in the right place to make plays. Hell, they even occasionally do make plays. They forced 5 combined turnovers against UCLA and Oregon that helped keep things close. They shut down Arizona for three quarters and came up with a huge goalline stand against Colorado in overtime. It would be nice if they made stops like that more frequently, but it's still an improvement from last season, when the defense made no stops of any consequence when the game was still competitive.
boomtho: See my answer from above!
6. The Bears have already run the gamut of emotions in their games. Which had the greatest affect on the team, the thrilling wins against Colorado and Washington St., the heart-breaking losses at Arizona and against UCLA, or the lopsided losses to Washington and Oregon? Which of those games revealed the real Bears?
Nick Kranz: I feel like the game that best represents Cal is the Oregon game: The Bears, facing a team that they simply can't match up with in terms of total talent up and down the roster, manage to hang tough thanks to a solid offense, an opportunistic defense, and more fight than Cal fans have seen in a team since . . . 2006? Probably 2006. God, that's depressing for me to think about. But the key point is that this year's team has just enough talent to go along with a really positive attitude, and the result has been a team that is mostly competitive despite some pretty clear deficiencies.
boomtho: I actually think that none of these games had the "greatest" impact on the team. I am very impressed with the way Dykes has kept the Bears fighting for 60 minutes a game despite being overmatched talentwise in most games. I think the real Bears are what was shown in the UCLA game - offensive explosiveness with a few wasted drives, defense doing their damndest to bend but not break, and some questionable playcalling and time management at the end of the game.
7. Are Bear fans optimistic about the last third of their season, or is there a sense of impending doom after the last few weeks?
Nick Kranz: Really, ask us after the game in Corvallis. Cal fans are pinning all of their hope on a win over the Beavers. If the Bears lose, lots of the optimism will disappear down the drain.
boomtho: This is a good question. I think there are some fans who look at 4 wins as already exceeding their expectations, so the rest of the season is just gravy - for them, the fact that we might be bowl eligible is a vindication of Sonny in year 2. There are some others that have soured as the losses have piled up and I think won't be happy unless we are bowl eligible.
Me personally, much like last year, it's really difficult to evaluate 2 of the 3 phases (defense and special teams) right now due to injury and depth problems. Because of that, I look at the progress the offense has made as a sign that Sonny & co can do the same with defense once we have the talent and health in place.
Tactically, I think we have a decent shot (40%?) at making a bowl, though that number will drop significantly if the Bears lose to the Beavers.
Thanks, guys! Great insights!
It should be an interesting evening Saturday night, with high urgency for all concerned.