Cal vs. Oregon: Keys to the Game

Well, the daunting final stretch of home games has arrived, starting this weekend as the Bears host the No. 1 team in the country – Oregon. This is the first time the Bears have welcomed No. 1 into Strawberry Canyon since Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and USC did so in 2005…

While the names Darron Thomas and LaMichael James are not quite the household names that Leinart and Bush became, Oregon's offense has proven to be just as potent.

How the California Golden Bears respond on defense will prove to be key.

Oregon's backfield duo of Thomas and James versus California's front seven

The key to Oregon's offense lies in the aforementioned backfield. Oregon's high-powered offense starts and ends with its basic zone read play. Oregon's technique of spreading the defense out and attacking the creases with pure athleticism has proven to be difficult to stop. The basic gist of the zone read begins and ends with how California's front seven reads and reacts to the play. The key is to be disciplined, and stay in the lanes at all times – something Cal struggled with mightily the last time they faced a team with heavy zone read in Nevada.

But with experience comes better understanding, and the Bears will need to stay in their lanes and tackle well if they are going to pull the upset.

"They just have so many weapons and they spread you over the field so much and they're so fast," said Cal head coach Tedford regarding the Oregon offense. "With the running back that they have, it starts with being able to try to slow the run down. They wear you down. LaMichael James – they play at such a fast tempo and if he finds a crease, he can make such big plays. They make huge plays in the run game."

If Oregon manages to establish the run game – as they have all year – it pretty much opens up the rest of their offense. In particular, successful running has lead to an extremely effective play-action passing attack, where Thomas draws the safeties in and leads the middle of the field wide open.

"[Thomas] is very accurate throwing the football," said Tedford. "I think it starts with trying to slow the run down and force them into long-yardage situations and hopefully force them to throw the ball."

If the Bears are to slow Oregon's high-powered rushing attack down, it will come down to the play of the front seven. If the Bears can contain Thomas and James, then they have a chance.

Oregon's wideouts versus California's cornerbacks

The previously mentioned play-action pass by Oregon is a made effective not just because of the rushing game, but also because of their speed and athleticism.

The biggest downfield threat is – by far – senior wideout Jeff Maehl, who comes into Saturday's game leading Oregon with 54 catches (21 more than any other player has on the roster) and 10 touchdowns. Maehl has turned into a star by running excellent routes and keeping defenses honest. If, for whatever reason, Oregon cannot get the running game going, they will look to Maehl to open things up. If the down and distance is third and long, Oregon will find a way to get Maehl the ball.

Thus, it will do California plenty good to have excellent man-coverage on the Ducks all day, whether it is sophomore Marc Anthony, freshman Steve Williams, or seniors Darian Hagan and Bryant Nnabuife. Depending on the matchup, the Bears are going to need to be locked in and blanketing receivers downfield. With the safeties likely keen on James and Thomas, there will be times when California's cornerbacks are going to be left on an island with the athletic array of Oregon receivers. How they defend in those situations may be the difference between winning and losing.

California's offensive line versus Oregon's front seven

The talk all week has revolved around how California can possibly slow down the Ducks offense. But if the Bears are to win, they are going to need to be able to score points, too.

With junior quarterback Brock Mansion making his second career start, the Bears are going to need junior running back Shane Vereen to be making plays and moving the ball – not just to score points but also to keep Oregon's offense off the field. And while Vereen has proven to be quite the playmaker, he only can go as far as his offensive line takes him.

California's offensive line has been up and down all season. When physical, the Bears' line has proven to be quite potent. Also at times, the Bears line has looked tentative. The Bears MUST be physical on Saturday, and give Vereen opportunities to find creases and make plays.

This will prove to be quite the challenge, given that Oregon figures to load the box and dare Mansion to throw. Oregon is amongst the conference leaders, giving up only 3.4 yards per carry. Lead by senior linebacker and Lott Trophy Finalist Casey Matthews along with senior defensive end Kenny Rowe, the Ducks are effective at forcing teams into third and long and – more importantly – getting the ball back for their offense to do work.

"Their offense gets a lot of attention but their defense plays great," said Tedford. "The team speed that they have on defense, they love to pressure you. Their linebackers are very athletic. A lot of movement up front with very good defensive linemen. Kenny Rowe, a defensive end, really does a nice job. Defensively, they're right up there in the nation and the conference as leaders."

Such is the challenge that the Cal offensive line will face. If the Bears are to pull off the upset, the offensive line's ability to push Oregon back and keep the Ducks' offense off the field will prove to be key. If the offensive line cannot get a push, this could get ugly, quickly.

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