BERKELEY, Calif. — Improving the defense has been the top task for coach Justin Wilcox since he arrived at California in 2017.
The Golden Bears showed significant improvement in his first season and have taken another big jump forward to start this year, helping power Cal into the AP poll for the first time since 2015.
No. 24 Cal (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) will get its biggest test yet this year on Saturday night when the Bears host No. 19 Oregon (3-1, 0-1) and star quarterback Justin Herbert.
“He’s a real talented guy and I know our guys will be excited to play against a player like that,” Wilcox said. “They have a lot of skill on their team. But you want to play against the best. That’s why you come here. I know they’ll be excited to compete against him.”
Herbert ranks sixth in the nation with 13 touchdown passes and 11th in yards passing with 1,186 so far this season. He was particularly sharp last week in a 38-31 overtime loss to Stanford, completing 26 of 33 passes for 346 yards and a TD.
The Ducks have averaged 42.3 points per game in his 19 games since 2016.
“We’re super excited about this,” Cal cornerback Cameron Bynum said. “They have weapons on offense, a great quarterback projected high in the draft. This is another test for us and we look forward to challenging them.”
The Bears have mostly met those tests so far this season against lesser competition. They have allowed 19.3 points per game, down 9.1 from last year and 23.3 from 2016 in the final year under coach Sonny Dykes.
Cal has allowed only nine scores on 43 drives and is fifth in the nation in pass efficiency defense thanks in part to seven interceptions.
“The mentality of our defense has changed since we’ve been here,” coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. “We have a lot of guys who take a lot of pride in what we do and now you’re measured when you’re playing against the excellent teams in the country.”
Oregon wants to get over last week’s collapse at Stanford, where the Ducks blew a 24-7 lead and lost in overtime after fumbling while trying to run out the clock late in the game.
“We have a lot to prove to ourselves as a football team,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “We feel we haven’t played our best football yet, or we still haven’t played a full and complete football game yet.”
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The Ducks lost in part last week because of the fumble by CJ Verdell in the final minute when Cristobal was trying to run out the clock. Oregon opted to run instead of taking a knee because Cristobal didn’t want to have to risk a punt with about 10 seconds left. That backfired when Verdell fumbled fighting for a first down and Stanford got the tying field goal. The Cardinal then won in OT but the Ducks have rallied around Verdell.
“He’s got the full support and trust of his team,” Cristobal said. “Difficult moment for anyone in their career to go through something like that.”
The Bears have struggled running the ball this season despite the return of 1,000-yard back Patrick Laird. Laird has just 147 yards rushing through three weeks and is averaging 2.9 yards per carry, down significantly from 5.9 yards per carry a year ago. He will try to get going against a particularly stout defense that ranks third in the nation allowing 2.13 yards per carry. The Ducks have held three straight opponents under 100 yards for the first time since 2003.
Hit The Road
The Ducks hit the road for the first time this season and look to improve on how they played away from home a year ago. Oregon lost all four conference road games in 2017, getting outscored by more than 24 points a game. Improving that mark has been a focus ever since Cristobal took over.
“That’s been a big part of our offseason,” Cristobal said. “Our guys understand that improvement is great, but cutting it close is not going to cut it.”
Cal QB Chase Garbers gets his first chance on a big stage after taking over as starter in Week 2. Garbers is completing 68.2 percent of his passes with six TDs, two INTs and an average of 6.9 yards per attempt. He has also rushed for 126 yards in three games and has provided steady leadership.
“He’s one of those guys who doesn’t ride the roller coaster,” Wilcox said. “He’s even-keeled.”