We're about to find out if these Oregon Ducks have the resolve to tighten the screws and win a very losable game against California on Saturday night before the heart of the schedule kicks in and the season spirals out of control.
Oregon has displayed some signs of brilliance through four games this season. The Ducks (3-1) have also demonstrated that they can be had and at times have proven to be their own worst enemy. These realities make Saturday's 15-point spread in UO's favor appear to be out of whack. UO simply has yet to display the consistency needed to warrant being such a big favorite over a 3-1, PAC-12 opponent.
A converence leading 42 penalties, inconsistent play in the last three games, youth, new coaching staff and new systems are all playing roles in the erratic product we're seeing on the field.
On merits alone, Cal (3-1) should be favored when the two teams meet at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at Autzen Stadium. The Golden Bears have better wins on their resume (at North Carolina and Mississippi) and a much better loss (No. 5 USC). Oregon's 3-1 record is deceiving. The Ducks are 1-1 against Power Five competition and has two cheap wins (Southern Utah and at Wyoming). The 42-35 win over Nebraska, which lost to Northern Illinois, is decent. But the 37-35 loss at Arizona State, a team that lost to San Diego State and narrowly defeated New Mexico, 37-31, is a head-scratcher.
Cal is going to give Oregon all it can handle. The Golden Bears' defense made life miserable for USC quarterback Sam Darnold and the Trojans for three quarters before the dam broke and USC' talent took over and turned a 13-13 tie entering the fourth quarter into a 30-20 win.
Oregon isn't as talented or as experienced as USC and you can bet that Cal coach Justin Wilcox will have some good defensive schemes dialed up to try to confuse quarterback Justin Herbert, rattle the penalty-prone offensive line and fluster a young receiving corps. The only way the Ducks could avoid a similar game from taking place that they could lose would be to clean up the problems that cost them at ASU and almost allowed Nebraska to come back from a 42-14 deficit at halftime to steal the game.
Let's face it: A close win and a close loss against two mediocre teams makes the Ducks mediocre, as well.
For that reality to change, Oregon must figure out how to cut down on penalties and execute consistently, especially on offense. That requires mental toughness when adversity strikes. False starts are unacceptable. Technique flaws on offense and defense while under durress that lead to holding penalties can't happen. Alignment and assignment issues on offense and defense musn't be tolerated.
The big problem for Oregon is that these issues might not be unavoidable this season. The team is simly too young. It needs time to mature. Time to develop that mental swagger to go along with the physical swagger.
Or, maybe we've already seen signs of the Ducks slowly maturing before our eyes. They did hold on to win over the Cornhuskers after the tide turned. And, after falling behind 31-14 to the Sun Devils, the Ducks bounced back to take a 35-34 lead late in the game.
The smart money, however, is on the notion that this is simply who these Ducks are for the time being. We will know more on Saturday. Oregon, no matter how it plays, needs a win. Otherwise, with and upcoming slate of games against No. 16 Washington State, at Stanford, at UCLA, vs. No. 20 Utah and at No. 6 Washington, even becoming bowl eligibility could suddenly in doubt.
Oregon vs. California
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium.
Betting line: Oregon minus 15.
Records: Oregon (3-1), Cal (3-1).
Last week: Cal lost 30-20 at home to No. 5 USC. Oregon lost 37-35 at Arizona State.
Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-46, 3-1 at Oregon); Cal's Justin Wilcox (3-1).
Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5. For the all of the reasons stated above, the Ducks could very easily drop this game. However, it's stretch to believe that Sam Bowers is going to be good enough to win at Autzen Stadium. He has thrown six touchdown passes with eight interceptions on the season. His 55.2 completion percentage ranks 11th in the conference.
Final pick: Oregon, 37-27. This should be an interesting game but UO will pull it out in the end.