PREVIEW: What will Cal's offense need to do on Saturday to defeat Oregon State and keep momentum into the bye week?

BERKELEY -- Cal has one of the best passing offenses in the nation, but will the Bears be using their ICBMs or their more short-range, close-quarter weaponry in Corvallis on Saturday?

BERKELEY -- California's offense is one of the most high-flying in the nation, ranking behind only Texas Tech -- appropriately enough, quarterback Davis Webb's former team -- in passing yards per game.

Webb leads the Pac-12 in passing. He ranks 41st in the nation in yards per completion (13.39), and his favorite receiver, Chad Hansen, is second in the nation in receiving yards (754), second in receiving yards per game (150.8), receptions (53) and receptions per game (11.0), while leading the Football Bowl Subdivision in receiving touchdowns (8). 

Oregon State has its work cut out this Saturday, to say the least. The Beavers are 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, 11th in total defense and 11th in rushing defense, but sixth in passing defense, holding opponents to 227.8 yards per game through the air. 

"Their corners do a good job of mixing up disguises, playing off, playing press, to keep you on your toes a little, kind of like Arizona State does," Webb said. "They do a good job, defensively, and we have our hands full as an offense."

Stay Strong Up Front

The Oregon State defense has only tallied four interceptions (tied for 52nd in the nation), and six sacks (1.4 sacks per game ranks 101st). How will the Beavers play Hansen, and apply pressure to Webb? It's been tough sledding, and even "pretty sorry" when it comes to Oregon State getting a pass rush off the edge, according to publisher Angie Machado. There will be some slants, stunts and the occasional four-down look as Oregon State tries to get some kind of pressure on Webb. Because of injuries, the Beavers are bringing in Hamilcar Rashed (a 6-foot-4, 220-pound true freshman outside linebacker) and 6-foot-7, 236-pound true freshman linebacker Joah Robinett to see if they can get some pressure off the edge.

"They're a mixture," said running backs coach Garret Chachere. "They're like a lot of people. Everybody's got a base package. They move a little, and they've got some Arizona State stuff to 'em, and some San Diego State stuff to 'em. They're trying to make some things happen out there, and they're going to be tough to deal with if you don't take them seriously."

Oregon State is 11th in the Pac-12 in total sacks. The Bears are squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to sacks allowed (2.2 per game), tied with nine other teams at 75th in the nation (ninth in the Pac-12). But, last week, against the No. 1 sacking defense in the conference, Cal allowed just one. 

Last week, the Bears dealt with Utah's strident pass rush by keeping a running back in the backfield to help with blocking, along with fullback Malik McMorris. That meant that Cal only rushed 13 times (14, if the Utes' one sack is included). That being said, they only had 49 plays on offense.

"I just want to win," said Chachere. "I don't want to worry about that. To be honest with you, we had 49, 50 plays, ran the ball 15 [sic] times, as long as we win, I don't care, really. Our job last week was to catch some balls and make some plays, and protect. Even some of the runs that Melquise [Stovall made], we were lead blocking out there, along with Malik. Last week, the idea was to block to help us win, whether it was pass game, run game."

Find the Soft Spots

While the last two weeks, Cal has faced single-high safety looks -- Arizona State soon realized the error in that strategy when that single safety rolled the wrong way and allowed a deep touchdown to Chad Hansen -- this week, Oregon State will play deep quarters, or cover-2.

Either way, there are going to be seams in those deep zones that can be exploited, but not right away. Cal will have to get the run game going, and draw in the middle linebacker to create a four-man rush. That four-man rush, and the attendant seven-man drop, will open up the middle, and that's where the Bears are best set up for success. "They're a pretty aggressive defense at times," said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. "They're kind of one thing or the other. They're going to be a quarters team, and be a man-press team, so I think it's going to be a big mental game for us, to take what the defense gives us, and understand what we're trying to accomplish from our game plan."

The game plan for the Cal offense is to drive a wedge into those seams and force them open, and that means trying to draw safeties down into the middle, or off to the sides on corner routes -- just as one Vic Wharton did last week, on second-and-10 in the fourth quarter. Wharton -- in his first game back after missing almost all of the Texas game, and all of the Arizona State game -- had moved from the outside Z position to the inside Y, and it was his 23-yard catch on the Cal sideline that directly set up the 56-yard touchdown pass from Webb to Demetris Robertson.

"That actually wasn't the play call," said Wharton, who was on the shelf with a strained groin -- in the same hip he had surgically repaired while redshirting after his transfer from Tennessee. "Davis ended up changing to that play call. I told him all game, that if he called that, that I would end up beating the dude deep, so he ended up believing in me, and he saw that we had the right coverage, and he changed it right before he snapped the ball, and he gave me an opportunity to make a play."

The way that Webb worked that drive is instructive. Before he hit ultimately hit Wharton and then Robertson, Webb was able to find a pogo-ing Melquise Stovall for a first down on third-and-six. Going across the middle and in the flats -- the same places that should be open against Oregon State -- helped to set up deep balls to Robertson and Hansen, who combined for nine catches, four touchdowns and 195 receiving yards, with longs of 40 (Hansen) and 56 (Robertson).

"We came in knowing that they needed a little bit of help," said Stovall, who has 16 catches for 195 yards on his own over the last three games. "They had the pieces. Me and D-Rob talked. I think for the most part, there was room to improve with the offense, so we came in, got after it, and this guy [Hansen] is amazing. You see it. I'm glad I've got him by my side." Though Oregon State will play man-press on the outside, without enough healthy personnel for a dime package, the Beavers will have to rely on nickel to cover the inside receivers, which means that Stovall, Wharton and Bug Rivera are going to have some room to work. Moving back inside after spending the first third of the season on the outside, Wharton -- who played inside with the Volunteers and worked with Jacob Peeler and his inside receivers last season while redshirting -- had a few rusty spots. Getting used to the extra room to work was one of them. 

"You have to know how to stem the DB," Wharton said. "It's been a transition for that, but I'm pretty much back to it now, and I've been watching Melquise and Bug work their routes, so I'm back to doing it as they do."

Run Into the Bye Week

Stovall and Robertson -- both former running backs -- finally got to unveil their special chest-pass package last week, and it's unlikely that it was a one-time occurrence.

"With having our 11 personnel stuff out there with Malik and our running backs, how they're playing pretty physical right now, they can be blockers, as well, so having that added dimension, putting some of those guys in the backfield, running quick motion tosses, I think that makes it a lot harder for defenses to prepare for," Spavital said. "They know that any of these guys can line up in the backfield and run a quick motion and toss it to them. I think the more that you can throw that into the game plan, the harder that is for defensive coordinators for what they've got to prepare for, throughout the week."

Stovall and Wharton, in particular, have been very good on screens, and that's a play that's proven to cause the Beavers some trouble over their first four games. However, the quick game -- and that modified run game reminiscent of Arizona's in the early 2010s -- won't be enough, alone, to draw in the safeties and create cracks in a secondary that's missing two key contributors in cornerbacks Jay Irvine and Dwayne Williams

To really open up the down field routes, it's going to take a legitimate run game, something the Bears have yet to find for more than a half at a time this season. The closest Cal got was the first half against the Sun Devils, when Khalfani Muhammad ran for 74 yards on nine carries. That production, though, wouldn't last. A helmet to the thigh in the first quarter was fine, as long as the adrenaline was pumping, but as soon as Muhammad cooled down in the locker room at halftime, it locked up, and he was only able to run three times for 10 yards on the first drive, before having to take a seat.

It's Muhammad -- not the bigger Vic Enwere or thicker Tre Watson -- who leads the Bears in yards per carry (6.2), and against the Sun Devils, early, and against Texas, the generously-listed 5-foot-9, 175-pounder has moved piles of three, four and five players.

"I'm just going out there with the mindset that I can't be brought down," he said. "I just keep in that mindset and keep the feet moving. I just run like a madman."

"He's just different," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "All of them have their strengths and their weaknesses, but Khalfani's a little bit different."

He hasn't gotten stronger, he insisted this week, because he's never had a true offseason -- running track in the spring. But, Chachere said, his improvement isn't necessarily physical.

"He sees the cuts, can anticipate the cuts, can see if it's not going to be a cut, if he needs to bounce it, by the fronts, by what he sees ahead of time, and it's all processing before the snap, and once the snap happens, he's just reacting, but he's running differently because of film study and the time he's put in," Chachere said.  "I don't think he consciously thinks he's running any different, but he is, and that's good, because he's not thinking about it. He's doing it, but he's not thinking about it."

The Cal run game, as a whole, has been somewhat underwhelming, given that the Bears had two backs (Watson and Muhammad) on the preseason Doak Walker Award Watch List, and returned four of five starting offensive linemen. Cal is 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging just 119.4 yards per game. To put that into perspective, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey is 13th in the nation among individual rushers, averaging 121.3 yards per game by himself.

The return of Muhammad -- who has five runs of 10 yards or more this season, three of 20 or more yards, and 577 all-purpose yards this season -- could give the Bears -- who rank No. 2 in the country in explosive plays (41 plays of more than 20 yards) -- a spark against a reeling Oregon State side. "It helps out a lot. It brings back the opportunity for some more explosive plays," Spavital said. "What he does gives us a little more depth at that position. You'd like to have three guys to roll, and when Khalfani couldn't go, there was a lot more pressure on Vic and Tre to carry the load a little bit more, but having him back is going to have the added dimension of explosive plays."

That said, last season's tilt with the Beavers was Watson's breakout game, when he rushed 10 times for 110 yards. He still thinks he has the best hands on the team, but he has at least one believer in Spavital, after his four-carry, 37-yard game last week, when he added three catches for 23 yards.

"Not very many people got touches last week, with 49 plays, but he's getting better each week," Spavital said. "I think last week was probably his best week of running the ball. I thought he ran very tough and physical, did some good things for us on some quick screens, as well, but I see him continuing to get better each week, and I'm just waiting for him to have that huge, breakout game."

What better a game would there be to get the run game going? With a bye week coming up, the Bears can get physical, and against one of the worst defenses in the conference, they should have opportunities to run the ball, especially if they're ahead in the second half. "I'm telling you, the bye week couldn't come at a greater time right now," Spavital said. "We're a little dinged up right now, just got to fight through it all right now, but I think these guys are excited to get on the road. We've been stressing the importance of trying to get a road victory in the Pac-12, and I think they want to go in there and try to have some success and come back and go into the bye week. It's always when you come on to the bye week after a victory, so that's what they're shooting for."

Stay Disciplined

Cal's last three games have been decided by an average of just over a touchdown. The Bears gave Arizona State 17 points thanks to offensive and special teams miscues. Going into a bye with a head of steam, and being able to run the ball in the second half against the Beavers all depend on two things: Discipline and execution.

The last three games, Cal has racked up 22 flags for 196 yards.

"It's really about us," Dykes said. "It's about us executing and we've been a good offense when we haven't had penalties and we haven't had negative plays. We've been not a very good offense when we do. We've got to do that same thing. Not having penalties is really on you, not your opponent. We've got to be disciplined enough to play with good technique, and not let those things that have hurt us in the past hurt us."

"When we wanted to [last week], we executed on offense," Hansen said. "We're pretty tough when we do what we're supposed to. When we started getting penalties, we started making dumb mistakes. We started going backwards on plays. We couldn't climb out of that hole. Thankfully, at the end, we were able to put a few drives together to essentially win the game, but it was all because of the defense."

Stay tuned for our full defensive preview.

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