Cal football is in a bad place.
Not only have the Bears started their season 1-4, with their sole win coming in a shootout at home against a Football Championship Subdivision school, but now they must travel to Eugene to take on No. 9 Oregon on Friday night.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Bears an 8.5% chance of winning, perhaps a generous figure in the context of Cal’s capitulation to Washington State two weeks ago in a 21-6 loss. And for those who might have forgotten, the Ducks beat College Football Playoff hopefuls and then-No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus earlier this season.
To make matters worse for Cal, unranked Stanford upset then-No. 3 Oregon in overtime two Saturdays ago, teeing up this Friday’s matchup as a redemption game for head coach Mario Cristobal’s team.
Defensively, Oregon will be back to full strength after struggling with absences due to injuries earlier this season. Elite defensive end and projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft Kayvon Thibodeaux, who missed out on a lot of playing time through the first four weeks of the season, made a full return against the Cardinal last week and will likely be featured prominently against the Bears in the second half. Freshman defensive end Bradyn Swinson, who had 10 tackles and two sacks through Weeks 1 and 2, sustained an injury against Ohio State but will return Friday.
A healthy Oregon defensive line is set to be Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s worst nightmare, especially considering how poorly the offensive line played against the Cougars. Washington State’s four sacks for a total loss of 29 yards kept quarterback Chase Garbers and the offense from finding any kind of rhythm.
In a press conference Tuesday, Musgrave said the offensive line’s run and pass blocking had taken a step back in Week 5 and called out the usually reliable sixth-year senior right tackle Valentino Daltoso for his poor display against Wazzu.
“We have good depth, and we’re ready to put in anybody we feel we need to,” Musgrave said. “But (Daltoso) can play better than he did. … He had a couple of plays that were uncharacteristic of his level, but I know he’ll learn from those and apply those lessons on Friday night.”
In any case, a stifling, hungry Oregon defense against a leaky offensive line and stilted passing game is a recipe for disaster for Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.
At least, that’s one perspective.
Another equally rational but more positive assessment would consider the fact that Cal has a knack for winning as a huge underdog every once in a while. Unranked Bears teams have beaten ranked opponents in each of the last five seasons. In fact, Cal’s last Football Bowl Subdivision win came in the final game of last year’s shortened season against No. 21 Oregon in Berkeley after starting its season 0-3.
Wilcox, who has rightfully come under fire recently for his program’s numerous pitiful performances this season, should also be credited for overachieving against elite opponents since he began his tenure back in 2017. A solid two weeks of practice, rest and planning will only improve Wilcox’s chances of knocking off yet another giant.
“I sound like a broken record here, but the guys practiced well,” Wilcox said in a press conference Monday. “There was a different rhythm to practice last week due to the bye week. Some guys needed to spend time getting healthy. For other players, it was about development. And then for everybody was the initial game plan for Oregon.”
Furthermore, in part thanks to the bye week, the Bears will also return a few important players, among them redshirt junior left tackle Will Craig and senior wide receiver Nikko Remigio. Both should provide a noticeable boost to an abysmal Cal offense that had just one touchdown and 152 passing yards against the Cougars.
And maybe Oregon’s loss to Stanford last week isn’t a bad omen for Cal. After all, this year’s Ducks have demonstrated a tendency to play down to the level of their opponents. Oregon starting quarterback Anthony Brown Jr. has not lived up to expectations, as the Ducks rank 11th in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (210.8). The running game is questionable now, too, seeing as leading rusher CJ Verdell will miss the rest of the season after sustaining a left leg injury against Stanford.
Sure, Cal football may be in a bad place. But there are reasons to believe that the Bears will capitalize on being well rested and prepared for a shaky Oregon side.