How Oregon fairs in October can set the No. 19 Ducks up for a nice run at the Pac-12 conference title or it can be their demise. It all starts Saturday when Oregon (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) faces undefeated No. 24 Cal at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.
The Ducks’ first road test comes against their second of back-to-back ranked opponents. Oregon lost to No. 7 Stanford at home in jaw dropping fashion in overtime while Cal (3-0) was resting up on a bye week.
After slugging it out with the Cardinal, it’s critical for Oregon to win Saturday because a win over Cal would set the tone for arguably the toughest stretch of Oregon’s 2018 schedule. Should Oregon go undefeated through this stretch, come November, the Ducks would be 3-1 in conference play and on a path to be challengers to win the North Division. But just as easily, the Ducks could enter November with an 0-4 conference record, searching for answers.
“This win is crucial to show how resilient we are as a team,” said senior running back Tony Brooks-James. “In the Pac-12, any given day you can lose and any given day you can win by a 50-point margin. It all depends on how you and your team are prepared on that day.”
In order for Oregon to win the division outright, Stanford would have to lose two games. The Cardinal play at Washington and have potential upset games vs. Utah, Cal, and Washington State. Looking at the Pac-12 Conference, it seems like, for the most part, any given game is a toss up. The Ducks’ next four opponents (Cal, Washington, Washington State and Arizona) are particularly mysterious.
Cal beat BYU on the road, a victory that looks better with each passing week as the Cougars have since upset then-Top 10 Wisconsin. The Ducks are facing a much improved Bears defense that ranks as one of the best in the country.
After traveling to Berkeley, Oregon has a bye week to prepare for most likely its third consecutive ranked opponent in No. 11 Washington, the only other Pac-12 team in the AP Poll Top 25. The Huskies (3-1, 2-0) were a heavy preseason favorite to win the conference but lost to Auburn and only beat Arizona State by one touchdown.
After that mid-October rivalry game, Oregon travels to Pullman to face a Washington State (3-1, 0-1) team that is coming off its bye week. The Cougars almost beat Pac-12 South preseason favorite USC, but a blocked field goal sealed the victory for the Trojans.
The Cougar air raid is strong this season, which does not pair well against UO’s young secondary. Quarterback Gardner Minshew II is second in the country in passing, leading WSU’s offense to 401.8 yards passing per game, which also ranks second in the country.
Also, playing in Cougar territory won’t be easy, as Washington State has claimed nine straight victories at Martin Stadium.
Then Oregon travels again, to face Arizona (2-2, 1-0) in Tucson, where it’s never easy to win as a visitor. Yes, the Wildcats got off to an 0-2 start to the season, including being upset by Houston. But since, Arizona has seemed to turned it around with back-to-back wins, including a critical conference-opening road win at Oregon State. The question remains, will first year coach Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Khalil Tate electrify again?
Talk about a tough month! Oregon coaches have lived by the idea that a prepared Oregon team that executes efficiently can beat anyone in the conference and the nation.
“I think it’s really important (to set the tone against Cal),” said co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo. “Anybody can beat anybody. The best team doesn’t always win, the team that plays the best wins.”
Despite losing their Pac-12 opener, the Ducks can still reach their goals they set in January, to win the conference and a bowl game. The Ducks’ loss to Stanford does not have to define them, but their October might.