The California Golden Bears and the Oregon Ducks meet in the first real national spotlight game for the Pac-12 conference, and it figures to be a dandy. You have two offenses that figure to duke it out snap by snap and put on a show.
For Cal, Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones have proven to be pretty unguardable by any cornerback this season, and they both figure to feature heavily in the offensive gameplan. The Oregon secondary (like UW did a week ago) is almost certain to bracket coverage as the game wears on, meaning the Bears are going to have to prove they can move the ball on the ground to beat the Ducks. Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson may be a special duo at some point, but right now they are just not efficient enough as the one-two option the way past Cal running back committees have been.
Zach Maynard will almost certainly have to make plays. He nearly pulled out a victory in Washington with his brotherly connection, and despite his poor completion percentage has proven he can make some big-time throws. Can he make good decisions running out of the pocket? Maynard has mobility but still isn't quite sure what to do with it, as he gets happy feet and tends to bounce around like he's in a jazzercise commercial. He's going to have to make better decisions out of the pocket to get Oregon defenders chasing.
In the trenches, the Cal offensive line has performed well, much better than last season. They've made errors, but they've done a much better job in opening holes despite having limited depth. This year they'll be facing an Oregon front seven that isn't quite the same. The Ducks do still have talent up there (as proven by the way they manhandled Arizona up front), but it's not quite yet settled.
The Oregon defense has showcased its vulnerabilities against LSU and Arizona. They fell to power running and turnovers against the Tigers and were shredded in the passing game by the Wildcats. The Oregon defense is far from the same beast that held opponents down in the second halves of football games last season, as they just lack the experienced bodies to all-out blitz and wear out the opposition. If they want to make this a comfortable victory, they must keep Allen and Jones from making explosive plays and make them work down the field.
On the other side, Oregon star running back LaMichael James will almost certainly shadowed by Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks in an effort to shadow down. With no dominant defensive lineman to watch, Darron Thomas will probably spend most of the game reading the linebackers or the safeties to decide what to do with the football. The X-factor could be the electric De'Anthony Thomas. Will Oregon run a triple option to the outside and try and take advantage of Thomas's gamebreaking speed? Will they make Thomas or James catch passes out of the backfield to try and spread the defense out? With Kenjon Barner still struggling to stay healthy, whatever the Black Mamba brings Oregon will be crucial to victory.
The Cal defense is a bit more of a question mark than it's been in the past. Cal has solid defensive lineman and strong inside linebacking presence, but their outside linebackers lack experience, and still are kind of undisciplined. It's important for them to understand their assignments, or otherwise gaps will open up for James and Thomas to exploit. NFL-capable talents Cameron Jordan, Derrick Hill, Mike Mohamed, Chris Conte have all moved on, and their presence has been missed all season.
The big question for Oregon is the passing game. With Cal likely to play Cover Zero and man up on the passing game, there is cause for concern on both sides--whether Cal has the footspeed to keep up with the quickness of the Ducks, or whether Oregon has reliable options that will catch whatever comes their way in tight spots. The Oregon receivers without Jeff Maehl are just not quite as good as last year, and their inefficiency has caused the offense to sputter. will Thomas try and use the tight end David Paulson to break things open? Lavasier Tuinei and Rahsaan Vaughn are the main options out wide, but they have no capable outside and deep threat to keep the defense going.
Can the Ducks stay methodical? Can the Bears use the vertical passing game to open up the run? With both offenses likely to be at full effectiveness, the defense that can step up and force the opposition off the field is almost certainly going to be the one that's victorious.
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