Key Matchup:Oregon Pass Offense vs. Cal Pass Defense
Whatever No. 19 Oregon discovered last week in the passing game must travel with them this weekend when the Ducks fly south to play undefeated No. 24 Cal.
The Ducks (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) have been waiting for the Justin Herbert-Dillon Mitchell connection to catch fire and it came to fruition last weekend.
Herbert asserted himself as arguably the top draft-eligible quarterback in the nation when he decimated Stanford to the tune of 331 yards on 25-of-27 passing in regulation. Mitchell was as equally unstoppable, amassing 239 yards on 14 catches, both career-highs.
For years, Oregon has been known as a run-first type of offense but with Herbert’s throwing ability, the Ducks have now transformed into a pass-first team with a power running game as a compliment.
It’ll be hard to Herbert to duplicate last week’s performance, especially against a Cal (3-0) defense that’s aggressive with two of the best ball-hawking safeties in the country.
Juniors Jaylin Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis have been terrorizing quarterbacks all season long, totaling five interceptions between them. As a team, the Golden Bears’ seven interceptions is tied for second in the nation.
"What they've shown is a tremendous amount of playmaking ability on defense," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. "They do a great job in the secondary."
The Golden Bears are forcing three-and-outs on 39-percent of opponents' drives and allowing a 25-percent conversion rate on third down — both tops in the Pac-12.
Helping Cal in the passing game has been the pass rush it’s been able to generate out of its defensive front. This unit is a combination of big and athletic and do a good job of getting their hands up if they aren’t able to get to the quarterback. Seven of the Golden Bears’ 17 pass break-ups have come from players not in the secondary.
Cameron Bynum is Cal’s top cover corner. Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 195 pounds, Bynum is a physical freak who uses his strength and length to make life difficult for receivers. He leads the team with five passes broken-up.
With Bynum expected to be matched up Mitchell, Herbert will have to look to other options.
Johnny Johnson III has had an up and down year, flashing big play ability but struggling to catch the ball sometimes. He leads Oregon with four touchdowns passes on his nine catches, averaging 18.5 yards per catch.
Jaylon Redd is another threat from his slot position. His strength to overpower defensive backs combined with his speed to outrun linebackers has made him a favorite target of Herbert’s in the redzone, as evidenced by his three touchdowns on the season.
This matchup will feature the best of Oregon’s offense against the best of Cal’s defense.
The Ducks have the clear advantage as the Golden Bears have yet to see a quarterback with Herbert’s arm strength and precision and a receiving group as athletic as Oregon’s.
Still, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox (a defensive wizard). He’s going to throw multiple looks and disguises at Herbert, hoping to dictate where the junior throws the ball and trust his athletic secondary to make Herbert pay.
Oregon wins if Herbert stays poised and doesn’t get rushed into bad throws. If he protects the ball and carefully chooses when to take his shots, it could be a long night for the Cal secondary. The Golden Bears can make this game interesting by getting an early turnover and forcing Herbert to question his decisions, leading to a poor performance.
Time will tell as to which strength wins out, but the assumption is that whoever wins this battle will continue their upward trajectory in the rankings.