PREVIEW: Cal linebacker Ray Davison ranks second in the Pac-12 in tackles, on one of the nation's worst rushing defenses

Coming off their second-worst rushing defense performance of the Sonny Dykes era, Cal welcomes the authors of the worst chapter in the Bears' recent run defense history, in the Oregon Ducks.

BERKLEY -- Of the top six rushing performances ever against a California defense, four have come in the month of October. Two Saturdays ago, the Bears saw Oregon State -- led by 221 yards from Ryan Nall -- rush for 474 yards. Exactly 35 years ago, today -- Oct. 17, 1981 -- Arizona State racked up 496 exactly 35 years ago today.

Astonishingly, neither of those two games were the worst rushing defense performances in program history. That title goes to the 532-yard game posted by UCLA at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 21, 1972. As terrifying as the month October is, though, the worst rushing defense performance in the Sonny Dykes era came on Nov. 7, 2015, when the Bears were swallowed up in a 477-yard track meet hosted by this week's opponent -- Oregon -- at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks may not have their starting left tackle Tyrell Crosby (broken foot), but they are still the No. 14 rushing offense in the nation, and Cal is the 127th rushing defense, out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, allowing 283.8 yards per game.

"Our whole focus has been to take care of us and correct it," said defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. "We had a few scheme breakdown mistakes, and some coaching error. Bottom line, it's my job to get this thing cleaned up and fixed."

Dykes said last week that the staff is dedicating "every minute we've got" to fixing the run defense. 

"Linebackers have got to insert, D-linemen have to squeeze it off, we've got to be able to tackle," Kaufman said. "When a ball pops, there's no excuse for a ball to go more than 15 yards if something happens. That's not acceptable. We had breakdowns up front and in the back end. It was total, be it a call or scheme or execution of the scheme."

Second-half adjustments against the Beavers turned out to be fourth-quarter adjustments, according to defensive end Cameron Saffle, who saw the defensive tackle on his side of the line -- James Looney -- get double teamed, repeatedly, as Oregon State ran up the gut uncontested.

"They had a good plan for us," Kaufman said. "Some of it was things they hadn't done, but bottom line, we didn't execute real well, be it scheme or technique. Doubling Looney or running some different blocking schemes that we hadn't worked on and didn't get adjusted to, and finally did, to give us a chance at the end, we went to the well one too many times on the last play of the game." "At first, they were running the ball on the perimeter, and we knew they were going to hit on the perimeter, especially out of the wildcat formation, but I don't think we were expecting Looney to get doubled," Saffle said. "Then, he started getting doubled throughout the game. That was what we had to figure out, because they weren't doubling on the film that we were watching. I remember talking to Looney during the game, and he was surprised about that. Towards the end of the game, we started stunting our formations, and that helped fill the gaps in the middle."

In the two games preceding Oregon State, the Bears had held both Utah and Arizona State to 3.3 yards per carry, and made a dramatic goal-line stand to halt the then-No. 18 Utes.

"Versus Utah, when we went against a three-, four-year starting O-line, and held them to 170 yards rushing," Saffle said. "To me, that shows that we're playing -- not to the competition, but we're showing up some games, and we're not showing up to others. We need to be consistent."

"It's fundamental things," defensive end DeVante Wilson said. "Guys mis-fitting gaps or just missing tackles, on certain plays that were big runs, if we hadn't missed tackles, it could have been minimal gains. We've got to do our job. D-line, we've got to hold up, up front. Our back-end guys have got to fill the gaps. It's simple things."

With a dearth of linebackers (playing two-wide almost exclusively) and season-ending injuries to safeties Evan Rambo and Damariay Drew, the injury retirement of Griffin Piatt, a hand injury to outside linebacker-turned-safety Derron Brown, plus a cryptic tweet from nickel back DePriest Turner that seemed to indicate injury (a tweet Dykes preferred not to address until later this week) filling gaps is more of a matter of filling out a complete lineup.

Linebacker Ray Davison, the No. 2 tackler in the Pac-12, attributed that to a lack of energy against Oregon State, but the slow bleed of personnel hasn't helped matters, bringing younger, smaller and more inexperienced players to the front, literally.

"We're adding more people to the box, going from a six-man to a seven-man, things like that, to make sure everyone knows where they're fitting now," said Davison.

"We had some scheme things that we fixed towards the end of the game, and it showed; We were holding them to three-and-outs," Saffle said. "If we would have gotten that done earlier, we would have been a little more successful ... Looking back on the game this last week, there were errors on our part, and we're kicking ourselves. We had some missed tackles that we usually make. Those broke out into some pretty big plays."

Two big plays -- an 80-yard run and a 62-yard run by Nall -- were particularly notable. The Bears had faced running backs equally as bulky as the 6-foot-2, 241-pound Nall against Texas, and didn't acquit themselves particularly well, allowing 6.0 yards per carry and seven runs of 10 yards or more, which included four runs of 20 yards or more. While Oregon is not nearly as explosive as it's been in years past, the Ducks are still 34th in the nation in offensive explosiveness, which means big plays are still on the menu. Those big plays, however, will be different than against an Oregon State team which kept to the interior.

"They like to get the ball on the perimeter a lot, and run a lot of outside runs," said Wilson. "I think we'll be fine, as long as guys do their jobs, and make the right fits, and make plays when they come to them. We can't have all the missed tackles we've been having." Tackling, Davison said, "is not rocket science."

The Bears are set to face a dynamic -- and slippery -- back in Oregon's Royce Freeman, who ranks 59th in the nation in total rushing yards (513), but fifth in yards per carry (7.66) and 25th in rushing yards per game (102.6).

“He’s got great size and strength, he’s got tremendous speed, he’s a really good open-field runner," Dykes said. "He can break tackles, finishes runs very, very well. He’s been as productive as anybody around. He’s a guy that I think is going to be an NFL running back. He’s your prototypical guy. I think he’s the one guy that everybody wants, with size and speed, plays tough and finishes runs, but has great open field ability. He can make people miss in tight quarters, and I think he’s certainly one of the elite backs in the country.”

The 6-foot, 229-pound Freeman and the Ducks sit atop the Pac-12 in terms of rushing offense (257.8 ypg), with 20 rushing touchdowns (eight more than second-place Washington, which trounced Oregon 70-21 two Saturdays ago) and a 6.1 team yards-per-carry average. Getting Freeman to the ground early in runs will be of paramount importance. Once he slips free, he has the ability to pull away in the second level.

"We need to make sure that we're square when we're tackling," Davison said. "We need to be physical and come with more energy ... [Freeman] is one of the bigger guys. He's pretty fast, and he has really good vision, but as long as we're staying square and being physical, coming with a lot of energy, we should be good."

Beyond Freeman, the Ducks have Tony Brooks-James, a sophomore who ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing, with 55.2 yards per game, but at 6-foot-9, 180 pounds, is Oregon's second-biggest gainer, averaging 7.0 yards per carry (Freeman averages 7.7, and Nall, for reference, averages 7.2).

"Royce Freeman is one of the top guys in the conference, and we're going to have our work cut out for us against their offense," Wilson said. "It won't be anything too challenging, as long as we do our jobs."

Davison noted that the Ducks run similar plays -- power read and pin-pull-stretch -- to the Sun Devils and Beavers, but they have "their own little twists" on those plays.

"The biggest thing is, we have to tackle better," Davison said. "We need to have more energy and be physical. Team defenses that are physical and do their jobs correctly, and have energy, those are the better defenses, and that's what we need to be." Top Stories