Quick Quacks

"The games to remember are played in November" is one of Coach Bellotti's favorite phrases. As the eleventh month opens, the Ducks will host the team with perhaps the most unanswered questions going into the season, California.

For most of last season the darling of the college football community – though decidedly not in the eyes of the BCS – California's season ended ignominiously with a 45-31 shellacking by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl, a game that was not as close as the final score may indicate. That embarrassment, whether a consequence of the disappointment in being passed over for the Rose Bowl – my personal opinion - or by being outclassed by Randy Leach's spread offense – the opinion of everybody outside the Pacific Time Zone, surely has been a motivation to the coaching staff and the returning players.

How the Bears respond to that humiliation would in itself be an interesting discussion. How the Bears respond to the loss of several key players from last year's squad makes the subject that much more complicated to consider. When you add to this equation Cal graduated its starting quarterback, a 2000-yard running back, a top-notch receiver, all the linebackers and their best defensive lineman - well yes - questions abound. In a conference filled with teams having questions to address, it is clear none have more than the Bears.

Head coach Jeff Tedford has proven to be something of a miracle worker by engineering the turn around of fortunes in Strawberry Canyon, and that reputation has seen most of those questions glossed over by the pre-season polls and commentary. Most observers have the Bears nationally ranked and contending for the conference championship with USC. That assumption appears to be based on Tedford waving his magic wand and the Bears finding a way to replace all that graduating offense with mostly very inexperienced players.

Call me a skeptic – historically, the Pac-10 has not treated youth with delicacy or compassion. Coaching staffs are quick to key in on inexperience to identify a point of attack and to establish advantage, and teams with more experience mostly have their way with the kids.

When that inexperience is at the quarterback position, the situation is compounded. Spring camp provided no decision on whether redshirt freshman Nate Longshore or JC transfer Joseph Ayoob would head the depth chart. For the opening four games of the schedule – Sacramento State, at Washington, Illinois, at New Mexico State – Mary Poppins could be the starting quarterback and the Bears should be 4-0.

Those four games will give Tedford the opportunity to slowly build the playbook beyond the running of certified All-America candidate Marshawn Lynch. By the time the Bears entertain Arizona, visit UCLA, then host Oregon State and Washington State, the Cal offense will be reasonably seasoned to the rigors of the Pac-10, so this season may be one exception to that pattern of first year quarterbacks not enjoying success.

It is also a true fact California's inexperience will be matched by most of the opposition and the first opportunity for a team possessing experience and depth enough to exploit that inexperience will be when the Bears visit Autzen, and then again the following week when they host USC. The question then becomes how "inexperienced" will California truly be eight games into the schedule.

Probably inexperienced enough to give the Ducks an edge – particularly if Oregon's season has gone well to this point and the Autzen crowd is riding a wave of enthusiasm. When heading into November with momentum, the Ducks historically have made the most of the opportunity to fashion a strong finish.

The heartbreak of last season's loss in Berkeley – to my mind clearly evident in Oregon's subsequent lackluster performances against UCLA and Oregon State – will provide additional incentive to take the game to the Bears. California should be nationally ranked and have a very respectable record coming into this game, but my guess is the Ducks are pointing toward this one as much as they are pointing toward USC.

Stopping Lynch will clearly be the key to controlling the game. When confronted with similar imperatives, Coach Aliotti's group has generally been up to the task. Factor in the decibel level at Autzen, the presence of Haloti Ngata across the line of scrimmage and Devan Long a blindside trainwreck in the back of your mind, few first year quarterbacks would be up to the task, whatever their recent successes.

A "November" game by every measure – for each team, conference championship aspirations and bowl pairings will pivot around this outcome. It's good to be at home.

Till the next time…

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