Oregon-Cal: Something Has to Give

Tristan HolmesCorrespondent IOctober 29, 2008

I’ve got to hand it to Larry—he was right about my prediction last week. I gave Arizona State far more credit than they deserved.

Though nobody outside of Sun Devil Stadium saw it, the Ducks were able to survive their own sloppy play on offense and blow out Arizona State. The Sun Devils made a bevy of mistakes and never had any momentum. Despite Oregon missing a field goal, an extra point, and committing three turnovers, they had more than 300 yards on the ground and 200 through the air.

I’ve been cautious with my predictions all year. I’ve yet to say publicly that the Ducks will win by more than 10 points or so. But this week is different. This week I think we can all agree Oregon has a tough game on its hands.

Cal and Oregon have had very similar seasons so far. Both laid an egg against a non-conference opponent they were favored to beat and suffered setbacks against a single conference opponent. But both teams are still in the hunt for a Pac-10 title (assuming USC slips up once more before the season is over).

The biggest difference between the two? The Golden Bears have beaten a team with a winning record, Michigan State. The Ducks have yet to manage that.

Oregon’s spread option offense keys on the run, which unfortunately plays right into the Golden Bears' strengths. Cal’s 3-4 defense is the 12th-best rush defense in the country, and their passing defense isn’t too bad either.

Oregon has been almost as good against the run, but prior to the bye week a banged-up secondary had been consistently gashed by play action. If Jahvid Best gets going this Saturday, look for a lot of such plays from Cal.

To beat a good Golden Bears team on the road, Oregon has to protect the ball better. There were issues with the shotgun snap last week, and the Ducks turned the ball over three times. On the season they are dead even in turnover margin, while the Bears are +10.

Turnovers were the difference the past two seasons against the Bears, and if the Ducks start giving away footballs the day after Halloween, things are going to go bad in a hurry.

Quarterback play has been iffy for both of these teams this season. Oregon has been plagued by injuries among the signal callers but seems to have settled on Jeremiah Masoli as their man until further notice.

A season-long competition between Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore has yet to convince Jeff Tedford to name a permanent starter, but Riley will get the first shot this week.

With two stout run defenses on the field, it is imperative for both teams to find success in the passing game.

The Ducks need to hope that they can keep some distance from the Bears, because they would seem to be at a disadvantage if it came down to a duel of field goals. Matt Evenson showed that he still has some mojo with a 52-yarder last week, but he has been inconsistent all season.

Oregon would much prefer getting into the end zone rather than risking field goal tries with an unpredictable kicker.

The winner of this game will be the team that wins the turnover margin. If that is even, it will come down to whoever’s passing attack does the best job of loosening up the opposing defense for the team's dangerous runners.

Look for the Bears to load the box and dare the Ducks' inconsistent receivers to beat them, while Oregon in turn does their best to rattle Cal’s two-headed quarterback.

This game is pivotal for both teams. The loser is all but eliminated from the conference title race and will be banned from the Top 25 for the foreseeable future. The winner will be in position to finish strong against some of the better teams in the Pac-10.

The Bears have taken two straight from the Ducks, and despite the mutual respect between these two closely connected programs, Bellotti and Co. are recruiting rivals with Tedford’s crew and could really use a win in California to help make their case to potential players.

Not to mention a win of this magnitude with the game televised on ABC might convince Kabuman to put together another of his great videos.

I’ve never predicted against the Ducks since I started writing for Bleacher Report, and more often than not it has worked out well for my favorite team. So once again, my “prediction” will be more based on faith in my own team than on cold logic.

I say something like this every week, but against the ball-hawking Golden Bears, I really think it is true: This one is not going to be easy.

MY VERDICT: Oregon Ducks 37, California Golden Bears 33