Not many would have included California as one of the teams entering week five of the season unbeaten. Even with the bye in week four, the majority had the Bears at best 2-1 with a loss to BYU once Pac-12 play started.
The 21-18 upset of the Cougars in Provo has set the tables perfectly for head coach Justin Wilcox to make the most of that momentum in hosting his alma mater Saturday evening at California Memorial Stadium.
Wilcox was recruited to the Ducks as a two way player out of Junction City and spent his year at Oregon as a quarterback. Switching to the defensive side of the ball, Wilcox held down a starting spot at safety for a year and a half then switched to cornerback for his senior season before entering the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant under Dan Hawkins. His first full time coaching position was at California as linebackers coach under another ex-Duck, Jeff Tedford.
In a best case scenario coming off the heartbreak loss to Stanford, Oregon enters Saturday’s match-up looking to duplicate the early offensive production they enjoyed against the Cardinal and then applying the hard lessons learned in closing out a victory and not letting it slip away with miscues and turnovers.
The worst case would be the miscues and turnovers extend from last week into the beginning of this, giving the Bears a chance to get a lead and turn the game into a ball control chess match.
In their three wins the California defense has forced seven turnovers and the Ducks have given up eight…not a trend in the Ducks favor and one that will have to be reversed in Oregon’s first game away from Autzen.
Cal defensive back Jaylinn Hawkins has three picks and will be certain to draw first glance as Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert scans the defense. Defensive Coordinator Tim DeRuyter has the Bear defense locked in, yielding just 19.3 points a game and recording half a dozen sacks.
Offensively, the Bears aren’t likely to survive if the Ducks can turn the game into a shoot-out. Freshman Chase Garbers has displaced Ross Bowers last years’ starter at quarterback, completing 45 of 66 attempts for six scores. Offensive Coordinator Beau Baldwin in not averse to using two quarterbacks and will also utilize Brand McIllwain and both give the Bears the option look he employed successfully at Eastern Washington.
McIllwain and Garber ranked second and third in yards rushing behind running back Patrick Laird with 144 yards and a touchdown, not a particularly potent offensive attack but one that could win a possession game if given the opportunity should Oregon get sloppy with the ball.
Defending the home turf and coming away with a win over the 19th-ranked Ducks would be a benchmark win for both Wilcox and the program he is hoping to turn around in Strawberry Canyon. The Bears won’t win on talent alone but with the extra week of preparation and in an early test of Oregon’s resiliency he must certainly like his chances.