KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal vs. Oregon

BERKELEY -- What role does the Cal run game have this Friday against Oregon? It could be more important than you think. Find out more about what it will take to beat the Ducks at Levi's Stadium in our KEYS TO THE GAME.

BERKELEY -- It will be Nike U visiting the Field of Jeans this Friday, as California hosts No. 6 Oregon in a home-away-from-home game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and after a morning of press conferences and teleconferences, we’ve got the details on just what will be the most important factors this Friday at 7 p.m., when the Bears take on the Ducks.

SPECIAL SCREENING. Over the past four games, California has been gashed badly by quick-out passes and screen passes. Though UCLA coach Jim Mora said this week that the Bruins only threw three or four true screens, the quick-out passes and timing routes to the outside are “a part of our offense,” and UCLA wound up throwing 14 of those (quick-outs and screens) against the Bears last week. The week before, Washington threw seven. Colorado also used that strategy to great effect.

Oregon lives by those types of passes, getting its athletes in space and up against one-on-one match-ups.

“They’re going to create space in their offense,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “That’s what they do, by throwing wide receiver screens, making you run horizontally, and then, getting the ball down the field on play action and throwing verticals, switch verticals and all the stuff that they do. It puts a lot of pressure on your defense, because when you give up one of those passes, it’s to a really fast guy. They have a lot of speed at wide receiver, and they ended up being big plays. That’s the thing they’ll do. You can’t let them big-play you to death, because they will.”

That’s what happened two weeks ago against the Huskies – thanks to an 86-yard catch-and-run screen touchdown by John Ross -- and that’s what happened last week on a 49-yard catch-and-run screen touchdown to Paul Perkins.

For the past three weeks, opponents have found ways to isolate the young cornerbacks in space. To make matters worse, the corners were playing 10 to 15 yards off the line, giving those receivers plenty of room to catch quick screens or quick outs, make one move and go.

“We can switch up our coverages,” said true sophomore corner Cameron Walker, who picked up his first interception on Saturday against the Bruins. “We can press if we want to. A lot of times, you have to make sure that the five-yard routes don’t turn into 15-yard routes. Whenever they throw a quick out or something like that, just get it broken up as fast as possible, get a tackle and minimize the yards after catch.”

One thing is for certain: The Ducks will learn from how teams have attacked Cal over the past three weeks, and, since the strategy – if not the details – fit into Oregon’s overall modus operandi, it’s something the Bears have to play tighter.

“[Washington and Colorado] did get them on a couple things outside that are just a little bit different than what we do,” said Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich. “There are elements of that that carry over in every offense, but the couple big plays that Washington had, that’s something that we don’t really do. Colorado did have great success on some of the inside shovel pass deal, a couple of their screens and you have to do something like that, just because of Cal’s speed on defense. You’re trying to neutralize them in some way, so we need to do elements of that, but still stay within our system.”

HOLD THE EDGE. A big part of Oregon’s offense is not just passing outside, but running outside, as well. It will be a very different run game than the Bears have seen thus far. Arizona, Colorado, Washington and UCLA ran mostly between the tackles, with some runs by UCLA going to the outside, and a few stretch plays by the Huskies. That won’t be the case with the Ducks, who run the majority of running plays to the corners with a few inside runs. Edge contain will be of particular importance, and that means the outside linebackers, defensive ends and safeties will have to get involved. Depth at safety is still an issue, but the depth at defensive end is perhaps of biggest concern to the Bears, with Dykes saying on Tuesday that Brennan Scarlett will once again be out, with Noah Westerfield and Harrison Wilfley listed as co-starters opposite of Todd Barr at defensive end.

The Bruins and the Huskies have some of the better ends in the conference, and they allowed Oregon to run for a combined 476 yards and 5.23 yards per carry. The inexperience at the pass rush end spot could be a significant problem, though Westerfield or Wilfley will be backed by the most veteran linebacker in Jalen Jefferson.

Of course, holding point on the edge will mean absolutely nothing if the Bears can’t tackle, which was a tremendous issue last week against UCLA.

“That’s something that’s very unacceptable,” said linebacker Michael Barton. “It’s something we’re going to address right away. Some tackles are made, this [UCLA] game could have changed. That’s what we’re going to focus on, is making tackles, wrapping up and rallying to the ball. That’s going to be one of the most important things for this week.

“They’re going to try to condense the box, and then they’re going to spread the ball and throw it out there to get those one-on-one match-ups, so we’ve got to win those one-on-ones, and we’ve got to have guys from the box coming to rally to the ball and tackle up, and we’ve got to win those one-on-ones. That’s going to be the most important thing for us to do.”

Keep an eye on San Jose (Calif.) Valley Christian product Byron Marshall, who’s the Ducks’ fourth-leading rusher (251 yards on 30 carries) and top receiver (34 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns).

START FAST. Barton, after the game on Saturday, said that this week’s contest at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be “a must-win game for us.”

“We’re looking to go to a bowl game this year, and losing these past two has hurt us,” Barton said. “This next game is going to be very important. I think it’s going to be the defining moment of our season, depending on how we come out and respond after a tough loss.”

That will have to begin with the offense. The Bears outscored opponents 56-0 in the first quarters of the first three games of the season, and over the past four, have been outscored 52-7, without having scored a single point in any of the past three first quarters.

“I just think that, at the point we’re at, in the season, teams are starting to get some schemes on us, and they’re starting to shut down our initial attack, so I feel like usually, after halftime, when we adjust, and finally figure out what they’re doing, then we start really putting up points,” said inside receiver Stephen Anderson. “Other than that, I figure, the last two games, I’ve felt that if we were to come out fast on these teams, it would have been another 50-point game, but that’s what our emphasis has to be on this week, is coming out fast and finishing strong.”

In contrast, this season, the Ducks have outscored opponents 51-33, and 112-51 in the second quarters of games. If Cal doesn’t get off to a fast start, Oregon will.

“Yeah, Oregon, we’ve all seen how fast Oregon can put up points,” said Anderson. “We definitely have to focus offensively and defensively to take the pressure off each other, to on defense, hold them, and on offense, to just do what we did in the first couple weeks. I figure, just like any other game, it’s going to be a shootout. I expect nothing less. It’s going to be a 60-minute game.”

As a man who’s played linebacker and safety in his youth days, Anderson said that he’d appreciate it if the defense shut Oregon out, but chances are, that’s unlikely to happen.

“It’s important to score fast against any team, I think, and not only Oregon,” said quarterback Jared Goff. “Putting ourselves in holes early is not something that we want to do, and it’s definitely hard to climb out of. They’re a good offense, and they’re a good team. We definitely want to score early this game, but it’s the same as any other game, I think. We don’t want to go three-and-out our first drive or the second drive. We’re trying to score on every drive.”

The big disconnect is that the Bears have seen Goff go 16-for-20 in the past two first quarters for 148 yards through the air (on the season, he’s 53-for-73 for 576 yards in first quarters). So, why the lack of points? The running game has been missing in action. Taking out quarterback runs and sacks, Cal has rushed for 52 yards on 16 rushing attempts – 3.25 yards per attempt over the last two first quarters – with seven runs of three or fewer yards and three runs of zero or negative yardage. The Bears are averaging 60.67 yards per game on the ground over the past three weeks, after averaging 172.25 the first four games.

Tailback Daniel Lasco has also seen his production drop, rushing for 176 yards over three games on 47 carries. His first four games, he rushed for 347 yards on 55 carries – 6.3 yards per carry.

“I don’t really know what the difference has been,” said Goff. “I think it’s probably a little bit of the defenses seeing some of our stuff on film, and maybe a little bit of fatigue, Khalfani [Muhammad] going down that one game probably didn’t help too much. There’s probably a bunch of different factors that have gone into it, but I expect them to do fine this week. They’ve been doing a great job all year, and I expect them to continue to get better.” Top Stories