It turns out that this four-game stretch in Cal's schedule that ends with Saturday night's game at Oregon is every bit as difficult as it seemed to be going in. A few weeks ago UCLA, USC and Oregon were all vulnerable for different reasons. And what was forecast as a "gauntlet" looked a little softer. That's not so any more, and the original perception is true, after all. This is one hellacious series of games.
Utah was still riding high when it faced the Bears, no surprise there. But UCLA and USC, once reeling, fixed things up and were too much for the Cal to handle. Now come the Ducks, who also seem to have figured it out, at least on offense.
Quarterback Vernon Adams broke a finger in the season opener and for the first six games was either restricted or absent entirely. The Ducks went 3-3. That wasn't at all acceptable to a fan base used to bigger things, such as playing for the national championship as Oregon did last season. The first two losses, to Big Ten titan Michigan State and conference power Utah were excusable. But then the Ducks were knocked off by Washington State at home. That came a week after those Cougars lost to Cal!
Things have changed. Adams returned with the finger healed two weeks ago, and the Ducks beat Washington and survived that that 61-55 triple overtime struggle Thursday night/Friday morning at Arizona State. Oregon now resembles the team picked by many to win the Pac-12 North.
"Oregon has a great tradition, and a very good football team," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said in his press conference this week. "They played for the national championship last year and are a very experienced team, a team that's very talented."
The talent returning from the team that lost to Ohio State in the national title game included an elite running back Royce Freeman, and pretty good performers at wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker. What it did not include were defensive backs and quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Enter Adams. A prolific passer and runner in high school in Southern California, Adams was snubbed by FBS schools and received just two scholarship offers from FCS schools. One of those was Eastern Washington, and Adams thrived at the Cheney, Wash., school, twice being Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Following the 2014 season, Adams wanted a bigger stage and realized that both Oregon and UCLA had lost all-star caliber quarterbacks. Because he would graduate in June, he would be able to use his final year of eligibility immediately if he transferred. After his visit to Eugene, he accepted Oregon's scholarship offer and won the starting job in fall camp.
The 5-11, 201-pound Adams is perfect for the Oregon offense, which is best when its quarterback is mobile. Adams is certainly that and can drive coaches crazy, the opponents' and his own.
"He makes a lot of plays with his feet, keeps plays alive," Dykes said. "Even if you cover them (receivers), he can buy some time and let guys separate. They do a nice job of playing the scramble drill and getting back to the quarterback in good angles. He has done a nice job of giving them opportunities and giving them balls that are catchable.
"You look at the Arizona State game and there's probably four of five times in the game when they (the Sun Devils) had somebody unblocked and they got to the quarterback and couldn't get him on the ground. A lot of those resulted in big plays for Oregon. So that's a big challenge to figure out a way to get him on the ground and keep him contained."
Georgia State offensive coordinator Eric Lewis had to deal with Adams early in the year. "The thing that we were the most impressed with is, obviously, he's a good athlete, but he's most dangerous when he's a drop-back passer and then he takes off to run," Lewis said earlier this year. "That probably creates more issues for a defense than just someone who can make plays on designed runs."
While he appreciates Adams' ability to elude defenders, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich wishes that sometimes his quarterback was a little more conventional, at least as a play is developing.
"I'm extremely comfortable if he starts in the right spot," Helfrich said on the coaches' conference call when asked if he was comfortable with Adams' sometimes frenetic style. "It's like breaking a stallion, which I've never done and I don't even know if that's a good analogy. But having that element of playground ball, improvised, has enabled him to do great things for many, many years. You don't want to squelch that.
"But at the same time if number one is wide open you've got to throw it to number one. It's making sure we know where to start and get that going. Then if things break down that's where the things he does become so valuable and so meaningful."
Adams' ability to stay upright long enough to locate targets resulted in 37 completions in 65 attempts for 587 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games. He was at his best at the end of regulation Thursday night when he eluded heavy pressure on fourth down from the ASU eight and found Bralon Addison in a crowd of defenders for the TD that forced overtime.
While Adams is the heart of the Oregon offense, Freeman is its soul. The 5-11, 230 pound sophomore rushed for 1,365 yards as a freshman and is back at it again. He leads the conference in rushing, averaging 138.6 yards per game, which is good for eighth in the country. His yardage total of 1,109 is good for sixth nationally and is also best in the Pac-12.
Freeman carried the ball just 15 times against ASU, leading some speculation that an injury that forced him out of the Michigan State game might be lingering.
Helfrich denied that Freeman was being coddled but did acknowledge that he is s "still working back to totally healthy."
The Ducks' receiving corps, already talented and experienced with Addison, Dwayne Sanford and multi-purpose Charles Nelson received a boost two weeks ago when Darrien Carrington was reinstated after a six-game NCAA suspension.
He has caught ten passes in the two games. Including a 46-yarder against ASU.
The offensive line is big and experienced. Tackles Tyler Johnstone (6-6, 295), Tyrell Crosby (6-5, 310) and Matt Pierson (6-6, 285) are pretty much interchangeable and move from the left side of the line to the right smoothly. Center Matt Hegarty (6-4, 294) is a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, where he started 13 games. He is on the Rimington Trophy (nation's best center) watch list.
But the Ducks have had their troubles on defense. They are last in the league in total defense (496.9 yards per game), pass defense (318.0) and scoring defense (38.4 points per game).
Most of the weakness is in the secondary, where seven of the top eight on depth chart are freshmen or sophomores. That lack of experience is not the case in the front seven, where seniors hold every starting slot.
"They're a veteran group up front." Dykes said. "The front seven is guys who played a lot of football for 'em."
And that experience pays off. "They swarm to the ball quick," Cal running back Daniel Lasco said. "They have some fast defensive linemen that like to make moves and switch up from what we've been seeing. They are hard-nosed and they try to fool you."
The leader is defensive end DeForest Buckner, who has seven tackles for loss, including 4 ½ sacks, in the last four games.
But in the defensive backfield the inexperience shows. "When you are young on the back end, typically that's a position that's tough to play," Dykes said. "Especially when you've got to play against talented people week in and week out in this league.
"And they've played some teams that can throw the ball. That's part of the statistical thing, you can't draw too many inferences based on numbers. They played some people that can throw it."
Helfrich calls the Ducks' secondary a "work in progress".
"Things are improving," he said. "Although we gave up a ton of yards last week and there are reasons for that. Our entire secondary is new; at this point in the season that's kind of an excuse rather than a reason. But you are always seeing new things."
Dykes said he seems some ability from the Oregon DBs. "It's a talented group,"
he said. "The corners have quick feet, the safeties can run. They're not the biggest guys but they can play physical."
The Ducks have their version of USC's multi-threat Adoree Jackson in sophomore Charles Nelson, who starts at safety as well as playing some wide receiver and returning kicks. He was conference special teams Player of the Week for his 185 return yards on four kicks, including a 100-yarder. He also had a game high 15 tackles.
"He's one of those guys who would have won every event at an all-comers track meet and every race in a swim meet," Helfrich said. "He's tough and smart and that type of kid who does everything well. He's still putting it together from a technical standpoint defensively, in hitting and tackling and all those things. He's so good on special teams, he's a guy we need to keep healthy and keep on the field."
- Cal leads the series, 39-36-2, but the Ducks have won six straight and are 15-6 against the Bears in Eugene.
- Freeman has scored at least one touchdown in 17 of his 23 career games and is just the fourth Oregon back to rush for 1,000 or more yards in consecutive seasons.
- Oregon has not given up a kickoff return touchdown in 124 straight games.
- The Ducks have thrown at least one touchdown pass in 76 straight games.
- Oregon has scored 36 non-offensive (defense or special teams) touchdowns since 2010. That leads the nation.
- Kicker Matt Wogan has touchbacks on 65.52 per cent of his kickoffs this year.