PREVIEW: What to watch for when Cal is on defense against Oregon

What should you be watching when the Golden Bears take the field on defense against Oregon? Don't sleep on the tight ends, and definitely don't sleep on the run game.

Oregon's Tight Ends

With nickel back Trey Turner (achilles) and linebacker Derron Brown (hand) both down, the injuries are mounting for the Bears over the middle. SAM linebacker Aisea Tongilava has played precisely one game, though head coach Sonny Dykes insists that he's not hurt. The linebacker rotation is essentially down to four -- Ray DavisonJordan KunaszykDevante Downs and Hamilton Anoa'i. The safeties have two first-year players in the two-deep in Jacob Anderson and Jaylinn Hawkins, and one converted quarterback in Luke Rubenzer. That's the perfect environment into which to throw quick slants over the middle, screens and passes to the flats, and as Cal saw two years ago in Santa Clara at Levi's Stadium, Pharaoh Brown is the perfect man for the job. Brown and fellow tight end Evan Baylis have combined for 15 catches for 137 yards. Those numbers don't look like much, but a well-timed drag or slant route over the middle, with the linebackers sucked up to fill gaps and stop the run, could be a catalyst for any number of Oregon drives.

Who will be throwing him the ball? True freshman Justin Herbert, who apparently is better than Dakota Prukop on the long balls.

"I was really impressed with some things he did against Washington," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "I thought that he did a great job of keeping his eyes down the field, when he became mobile in the pocket and maybe was forced to get to some backside reads, and was pressured a little bit, and was a good enough athlete to be able to avoid pressure, but at the same time, make some plays, and make some plays down the field, where he got to his backside reads and bought some time and got the ball down the field and into the end zone.

"I think he made some big-time throws. There are two or three throws on there that you just go, 'Wow, that's a big-time throw, so he's a kid who's got some ability, clearly. He's a good athlete, has got a nice arm, and the thing that impressed me as much as anything was his ability to improvise, and not just pull the ball down and run, but pull the ball down and find some receivers down the field and make accurate throws under some duress. I was impressed with him, and I thought he showed a lot of poise, and it looks to me like he's going to be a really good player."

Though the Ducks aren't a pass-first team, and though they don't have the down-field threat that was the now-injured Devon Allen, they do have Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford, who have combined for 526 yards on 37 catches, with Stanford averaging 13.5 yards per catch, and Carrington 14.6, with three touchdowns.

"I look at the plays that are being run," said defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. "I've watched people, but I've watched plays. To me, on quarterback, the other quarterback, it doesn't matter."

That Big Blue Freshness

Defense is about experience and athletes, Sonny Dykes said during his weekly press conference. Those are two things the Bears do not have, especially at linebacker and safety. We already discussed the injuries to Turner and Brown, but now that Russell Becker (leg) and Luc Bequette (ACL) have gone down with season-ending injuries, that brings up another issue.

"Football's a lot like baseball: You want to be strong up the middle," said Dykes, himself a former first baseman for Texas Tech. "You want your tackles to be good, you want you linebackers to be good, and you want your safeties to be good. Unfortunately, that's where some of our injuries have been: Up the middle. It's like anything else in football -- everybody's hurt; there's no excuses. It's hurt our depth a little bit, and we're having to rely on some young guys that haven't played a lot of football, and when you're playing with some young players, you deal with the physical -- sometimes they're not as far along as you want them to be -- and they just don't have that experience. Luckily, [Tony] Mekari and [James] Looney are playing well, and have played a lot of football for us. Marcus Manley has played some football for us. We've got to keep developing those young guys, and keep doing the same thing at safety." does that thinning in the middle mean? Easy: An even more horrific rushing defense than the on that was already 127th in the nation, against the nation's No. 14 rushing offense. Talk about bad timing.

Against Oregon, you have to rotate the line constantly, because of the number of plays they run, and the speed at which they run them. The Ducks run 72 plays per game -- far down from Cal's 82.33 plays per game, and below the average amount of opposing offensive snaps the Bears see in a game (80.5) -- but this is an offense that is designed to go fast, and to keep a defense on its heels, and you can't fight against that if your defensive line is at half strength, or if you only have three reliable defensive tackles.

Cal was able to keep up with Utah and their 97 plays last time the Bears took the field at Memorial Stadium, but Utah is a huddle team, and also held the ball for 42:01. That's one play every 26 seconds. The Ducks average one play every 21 seconds.

"They're all totally built on athleticism, and I think the big thing there is, they try to get you out in space and spread you out and get creases, they run around you and if you're outside, they run it up inside you, because you've got so many holes in there," said Kaufman. "It pushes [gap integrity] that much more. We got exposed on some things, which, hey, we get exposed, it's time to fix it. We've got to play technique- and assignment-sound football.

Kaufman hasn't seen much of the kinds of double teams that the Bears saw two weeks ago against Oregon State, but, he said, the Ducks offense has been in place so long that there are plenty of adjustments already baked in.

"Those coaches have been in that system so long, and have been in that offensive philosophy, that they understand all the adjustments," Kaufman said. "They know what step one, step two, step three, and they keep turning the page to go to the next thing. You take away one thing, and they've got the next answer."

At times, Cal slanted its defensive line against Oregon State, and that started to work late in the game, but Kaufman is clearly wary of that tactic, because, he said, sometimes it works, but sometimes, you get burned, especially if you get out of your gap, and that's something that the Bears have been struggling with.

Thunder and Lightning, Thunder and Lightning

One thing that has not changed in almost two decades with the Ducks: They can run. Oregon has four running backs, all fast, all have over 200 yards rushing this season, and is the No. 14 rushing offense in the nation.

"He's a big back that runs like a fast back," Kaufman said of Royce Freeman, the leader of the bunch. "He's got size, but he's extremely fast." Ducks also have Kani BenoitTaj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James up their sleeves. Freeman checks in at 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, while Benoit is 6-foot, 210. Brooks-James is 5-foot-9, 185, and Griffin is 5-foot-10, 180. Freeman and Benoit are used generally between the tackles, while Brooks-James and Griffin look to get in the open spaces (used more in sweeps) on the edges. All are capable of scoring anytime they touch the ball, and since the Bears have allowed 85 plays of 10 yards or more this season, those big plays are less a possibility than they are a certainty.

"It's not whether they're big or small; it's how fast they are," Kaufman said. "And they're all fast. That's where Oregon does a phenomenal job, is utilizing their speed. You always have to account for the quarterback, in everything they do, because it's an option game. There are 11 men on the field, not 10 with a guy handing it off."

But, remember that the Bears held Arizona State to 100 yards below its season rushing average, made key stops on the ground when they needed to against Texas (although the Longhorns rushed for 307 yards), and held up strong against a tough-running Utah offense at home, as well.

Only two of Cal's first six games have been at Memorial Stadium. Four of the Bears' final six will be at home, including games against UCLA, Stanford, Washington and the Ducks. If there's a recipe for a strong finish, spending most of the second half at home should be Ingredient No. 1. The last time the Bears put any kind of a hurting on Oregon was, you'll remember, at Memorial Stadium, in 2010, when Cal stopped the Ducks' offense at the height of its power, though still lost, 15-13. The Bears offense isn't nearly as anemic as it was then, and the Ducks have the 117th passing defense and 118th rushing defense. Just don't make any plans for late Friday night, or early Saturday morning. This one could go well into the wee hours. Top Stories