This Thursday at 6 p.m. PDT, the California Golden Bears are heading up to Eugene, Oregon to take on the fast and athletic No. 9 Oregon Ducks. The Bears are 3-1, a good record for a team that had many question marks entering the season, specifically quarterback Zach Maynard.
Last week, the Bears saw many of the problems that were apparent in the first three weeks of the season become magnified in a 31-23 loss to Washington on the road. It will take a lot of work to get things to go right for the Bears to bounce back from that loss and avenge last year's 15-13 loss to the Ducks.
Here is what the Bears will have to do right on their end of the ball to win this game.
Cal started off 6-9 on point after attempts in the first two games. The missed extra points weren't just wide left or wide right—they were blocked.
Then in the Presbyterian game, Cal got their act together and went 9-9 on the extra points. But of course it couldn't be that easy. Bryan Anger got a punt blocked, accounting for six of the Blue Hose's 12 points.
Surprisingly, against a much better opponent in Washington, Cal didn't allow any kicks to be blocked in the hostile environment of Husky Stadium. But this week the Bears are playing a much tougher team in the Ducks at Autzen Stadium, one of the loudest in the country.
If Cal can't take advantage of two of their most consistently reliable players, kicker Giorgio Tavecchio and punter Bryan Anger, things will be looking bad for the Bears.
Cal is 108th in fewest penalty yards per game. Flip that stat around and Cal racks up the 13th most penalty yards per game in the nation.
It averages out to be a loss of 74 yards per game, which is a lot, especially against teams like Fresno State, Colorado, and Presbyterian. Plus if you put a few of those penalty yards towards the final drive of the Washington game, Cal is 4-0 and feeling much better about their chances this Thursday.
Penalties have been adding up quickly for Cal this season and it puts them in a hole early on, not a place from which any team wants to start.
Cal's defense has had its strong points this season—specifically their nationally-ranked 9th run defense. As for defending the skies, the Bears have their work cut out for them.
This year, the Bears are ranked 79th in the nation in pass defense and are taking on the 59th best passing team. While Colorado and Washington both have better passing offenses than the Ducks, Oregon is a much better overall team and provides potent pass and run offenses.
That means Cal must respect both the pass and the run and can't just key in on one.
Sean Cattouse is the lone standout at strong safety but other than he, the rest of the secondary needs to bear down in order to stop the lightning quick Oregon "blur" offense.
Cal is ranked 33rd nationally in red zone offense, just a few spots behind the high scoring Ducks. But this stat is heavily skewed for the Bears after going 6-6 against Colorado in a game that involved little defense and then doing the same against Presbyterian a week later.
Last week was a much more telling tale. Against the Huskies, the Bears only scored one touchdown in five red zone opportunities.
That's 20 percent.
The field shrinks in the red zone and because of that, Cal needs to push the ball between the tackles. To do that, head coach Jeff Tedford Bears needs to give the ball to his bruiser, junior CJ Anderson, to produce touchdowns.
CJ Anderson is three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than starting back Isi Sofele. They're both talented and that should be utilized with Anderson playing the thunder to Isi Sofele's lighting.
Against a high power offense like Oregon, a touchdown has a much bigger impact than a field goal and Cal will need just that.
Cal has 20 passing plays of over 20 yards this season. The big play clearly isn't a problem for quarterback Zach Maynard, but the short passes might be.
Running back Isi Sofele and tight end Anthony Miller have combined for eight catches and 102 yards.
Eight catches. Through four games.
These are the starters at their positions! They should be Maynard's best friends—reliable targets for underneath passes just beyond the defensive line for a sure gain of about four yards. The plays that should be called on 3rd-and-4 should be a short pass to Sofele or Miller at the first down marker, not a 20 yard bomb to Keenan Allen or Marvin Jones.
The more Maynard relies on his star wide receivers, the easier it will be for the defense to key in on them and stop covering Sofele and Miller.
It's the little things that are hurting Cal. With some improvement, Cal can put together a good fight on prime time against Oregon.
And who knows, the Golden Bears almost got away with an upset last year.