Kelley L. Cox / USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Resurgence of Cal's run game coming at the right time as Oregon comes to town

After Cal's 317-yard rushing performance against Oregon State, California enters this week against Oregon facing a run defense even worse than the Beavers, and uncertainty surrounding receiver Chad Hansen.

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Cal vs. Oregon: By the Numbers

California will have a golden opportunity on Friday against a rush defense that's almost as hapless as their own: Cal owns the 127th rushing defense in the nation (out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams) and Oregon ranks 118th -- one spot worse than Oregon State -- allowing 238.0 yards per game on the ground. 

"I think people saw the Texas film, saw the San Diego State film where we gave up a lot of yards rushing, and said, 'OK, here's what we want to do,'" head coach Sonny Dykes said of the 307-rushing yard and 334-rushing yard performances against the Longhorns and the Aztecs. "'We can run the football against these guys and keep their offense off the field,' and I think that's become everybody's formula."

The Bears have allowed 1,703 yards on the ground this season, with opponents averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Before giving up 474 rushing yards to the Beavers, Cal had allowed 3.3 yards per carry to Arizona State and Utah, but the unit has clearly regressed. "We're trying to get it fixed," Dykes said. "We're spending every minute we've got to figure it out and to play better, and we have, at times. We have, in certain key situations, just like we did at the end of the Utah game. Clearly, holding them out at the one-yard line was pretty significant, right at the end of the ballgame, but at the same time, there's been times where our rush defense has not been good. It was not good the other night."

On the other side, though, of the 1,428 rushing yards given up by the Ducks this season -- second-worst in the Pac-12 only to the Bears -- 601 yards have come on runs of 17 yards or more. In last week's 70-21 stomping at the hands of No. 5 Washington, the Ducks gave up a season-worst five runs of 20 yards or more, including three of 40 yards or more.

"The one thing that they’ve done that’s similar to us is they’ve given up some big plays in the run game," said Dykes. "I think that they’re probably trying to address some the same issues we’re trying to address – how to get people down when they get through the line of scrimmage or past the front seven. I think a good bit of their rushing yardage has been through some big plays. When you look at the tape, Washington State had a good number of long runs against them, Colorado had a couple, Washington had a couple of long runs, as well. A lot of the yards they’ve given up have been via big plays, so they’re trying to fit all the stuff up, and trying to get guys on the ground when they get to the second level, just like we are.”

As crucial as the passing game is to the Bears' success, the fact that, on Sunday, Dykes was noncommittal about the return of leading receiver Chad Hansen for Friday's 7:30 p.m. tilt on ESPN2 against Oregon shows that the run game will be that much more important.

Cal (3-3, 1-2 in Pac-12) showed against Oregon State that when it commits to the run, it can be a very effective weapon. The Bears' 7.2 yards per carry were a high-water mark for the Dykes era, and the 44 rushing attempts in the overtime loss to the Beavers marked the most since Cal ran 46 times against Oregon State last year, and the fourth-most since Dykes and his pass-heavy offense arrived in Berkeley. "I didn't know that specifically, but I knew it was close to the highest [yards per carry], if not the highest," Dykes said on Sunday. "I thought we ran it well, and we need to continue to do that ... We need to be able to run the ball. We were having a hard time throwing it. I think we're a little banged up, and it affected us. As we've talked about, we're certainly a better football team when we can run the football, and take some pressure off our quarterback. It just opens up everything, when you're able to run the football. That's going to be big for us this week, as well. We need to get the run game going, and be able to move the chains running the football, and hopefully, the better we run it, it'll open up some stuff down the field in the passing game."

With quarterback Davis Webb on the mend from an unspecified thumb injury, Hansen is a question mark, meaning that the passing game may not be at 100%. 

“He looked good today, so we’ll continue to load him up more and more as we progress, and we think that he’ll be fine," Dykes said of Hansen.

What will Dykes need to see -- and when will he have to see it -- in order to have confidence in Hansen on Friday?

“It’s hard to say," Dykes said. "A lot of that is game time stuff. A lot of it depends on how long can he play, and it’s a simple thing – you don’t want to stick him out there for 85 plays if it affects his ability to heal up down the road, as well. We’re going to start slow this week, like today, and work our way up, and see how he responds, but the fact that he did something today, I think, gives me hope that he’ll be able to carry a big load on Friday night.” That likely means, no matter what, that Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson will have larger roles than they have all season. Muhammad had a breakout game against Oregon State, rushing for 165 yards on 21 carries.

"It gives me a lot of confidence, because we're establishing our run game," Muhammad said. "We just have to keep improving. I just hope it's a trend for the rest of the season."

That trend could very well start on Friday at Memorial Stadium. Just as it has against Cal, running the ball has clearly also been the formula for teams against Oregon. UC Davis started the season rushing for 89 yards against Oregon, but that number has gone up every week. Virginia put up 193 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Nebraska rushed for 228, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry, with Colorado (260, 5.0), Washington State (280, 7.0) and the Huskies (378, 8.4) improving on those numbers in successive weeks.

"As far as I'm concerned, we have to go out there and execute," Muhammad said. "We have to go out there and have some big plays. I'm looking forward to it."

The Ducks have been dealt some serious blows on the injury front. Offensively, Oregon lost Olympian Devon Allen (ACL) and left tackle Tyrell Crosby (broken foot), but defensively, the Ducks have been decimated. Linebacker Torrodney Prevot has been suspended because of a criminal investigation. Gone is senior linebacker leader -- and former Bear -- Johnny Ragin III, who is done for the season. True freshman Troy Dye missed his second game of the year against Washington State due to an undisclosed injury, but came back to record three tackles against the Huskies. Defensive end Jalen Jelks has not played since the second game of the season.

True freshmen have accounted for 70 of the Ducks' 429 tackles -- 16.3% -- and that, along with the thin depth at linebacker, have been the cause of much of the defensive frustrations under first-year defensive coordinator Brady Hoke. Junior linebacker Jimmie Swain -- who has 22 tackles and two pass breakups, including eight against the Huskies -- has provided a bit of veteran leadership in the absence of Prevot and Ragin.

"He made a lot of plays," Dykes said. "I think he's showing up more and more for them. They move him around, and try to figure out how to get him in situations where he can be productive, so I think you've got to go into the game thinking that you'd better have a plan."

That plan should be to run the ball until the Ducks -- who have lost four straight games for the first time since 2006, and have not lost five in a row since 1996 -- prove they can stop it, just like the rest of the Pac-12 has done, and will do, to the Bears.

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