Oregon hosts the 1-2 Cal Bears Saturday at 7:30 on the PAC-12 Network. The Ducks are favored by 36.
Under new coach Sonny Dykes the Bears have struggled in three home games to start the year. The athletic department didn’t bless their new head man with the easiest of beginnings: they opened with #22 Northwestern and lost 44-30, came from behind to edge Big Sky foe Portland State 37-30, then got crushed by Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes 52-34.
Mercifully, the team enjoyed a bye week this Saturday, and coaches used the extra week of practice to open up position battles, notably on the offensive line, which has given up 12 sacks for 62 yards while ranking 97th in the country in rushing with just 352 yards in three games, 3.1 yards per attempt.
Slow starts have plagued the Bears. After the OSU game Dykes told reporters, “We have just started so poorly now for three weeks,” Dykes said. “And it’s something we’ve talked a lot about. I don’t really have an answer at this point. It’s something we’re going to need to look at and get fixed.”
“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Dykes said. “We’re a very young football team. We’ve just got to grow up.”
The Buckeyes opened up their visit to Memorial Stadium with two long td passes for a quick 14-0 lead. With Braxton Miller out with a knee injury, reserve quarterback Kenny Guiton set a school record hooking up with receiver Devin Smith on a 90-yard touchdown pass, then threw a 47-yarder to Smith less than two minutes later.
Overall the Bears defense ranks 121st in the country, allowing 42 points per game. Even PSU pounded them, with 23 first downs and 553 yards of offense.
Between the buyout for Jeff Tedford and Dyke’s 7-year, $9.7 million-dollar deal, Cal is paying out $16.3 million to head coaches past and present. In Tedford’s last three seasons the team went 15-22, all in the bottom half of the conference.
Still, Dykes, the former offensive coordinator for Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Mike Stoops at Arizona, remains optimistic. He told Jeff Farudo of the San Jose Mercury News, “There’s a lot of people in the country that haven’t played anybody, that may be 3-0 right now. They think they’re pretty good and they’re really not,”
“We know where we are and where we have to improve. I’ll take the schedule we’ve played against anybody in the country. And for a young football team we’ve done some good things.”
This is Dykes’ second head coaching job after great success engineering pass-happy Air Raid offenses for the Red Raiders and Wildcats. Before being tapped for the Cal job he succeeded Derek Dooley at Louisiana Tech, 22-15 in three seasons including a 31-24 loss to TCU in the 2011 Poinsettia Bowl.
In their early travails, the one thing the Bears do well is throw the rock. Quarterback Jared Goff, a 6-4, 205-lb. freshman from Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, California, pilots a high-powered offense that is 2nd in the country in passing yards at 438.7 per game. Already Goff has thrown for 1306 yards and 7 tds, completing 61.3% of his passes.
After beating Zach Kline and Austin Hinde in a quarterback competition that raged all through spring football and most of fall camp, Goff has gone on to become the first Bear signal caller to throw for 300 or more yards in three straight games since Aaron Rodgers did it ten years ago.
Rolling right and spinning it true: before Jared Goff won a three-way battle to become Cal starter as a true freshman, he started three seasons at Marin Catholic ahead of Duck verbal commit Morgan Mahalak (Cal athletics photo).
The Bears are throwing 60% of the time, and a lot of it are quick passes, especially screens to #1 Bryce Treggs, their leading receiver with 28 catches for 317 yards and one td. A 5-11, 180-lb. sophomore, he caught 13 passes for 145 yards against Northwestern.
The other principal target at wide receiver is #6 Chris Harper of Crespi High, 6-0, 180. Harper’s the burner, with 21 catches for 324 yards, including a 52-yard td against Northwestern and a 42-yard strike versus the Buckeyes.
Running back #5 Brendan Bigelow is also dangerous. A high school teammate of Oregon receiver B.J. Kelley, he had 44 carries last year for 431 yards, a whopping 9.8 yards per rush, He’s explosive: as a sophomore he had an 81-yard run in the 2012 Ohio State game, and an 88-yard kickoff return against Presbyterian in the season opener. The offensive line hasn’t given him much room so far this season. In the three games he’s been limited to 175 yards, 4.0 yards a carry. He hasn’t yet reached the end zone after scoring 3 times on the ground last year.
Defensively, the Bears are led by a trio of big linebackers. Penn State transfer #11 Khairi Fortt has 25 tackles; he’s 6-2, 240. Freshman Hardy Nickerson, #47, 6-1, 230 is next with 24. He’s the son of 16-year NFL veteran and 4-time Pro Bowler Hardy Otto Nickerson, a former San Francisco 49’er great. #7 Jalen Jefferson jumps in with 23 stops; 6-2, 230 from Oxnard, California, he had 47 tackles in a reserve role last season. True freshman Johnny Ragin, a Duck target in the 2013 recruiting from Wilsonville, Oregon, also plays in the rotation, though he sat out the OSU game with illness.
Cal employs a 4-3 base defense. So far this season they have just three sacks. There is good size on the front three in nose tackle #91 Deandre Coleman (6-5, 315, Sr.*) and tackle #55 Viliami Moala (6-2, 315, Jr.) Moala was a player the Ducks pursued heavily before losing him to departed defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, now with the Washington Huskies.
One thing fans won’t see from the Bears are faked injuries. After Lupoi brazenly employed the technique in an attempt to slow down the Ducks for two seasons, under Dykes, the team has averaged 94.6 plays per game thus far this season. In fact, in their opener against Northwestern, it appeared that it was the Wildcat players who would look to the sidelines and then fall down on cue.