BERKELEY (AP) – Just a year ago when California played Oregon, it was the Golden Bears who had the title hopes while the Ducks were trying to find their way.
Boy, how things have changed.
All Cal (5-4, 3-3 Pac-10) has to play for down the stretch this season is the chance to become bowl eligible and the opportunity to play spoiler against top-ranked Oregon (9-0, 6-0).
“This is basically our BCS game,” Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed said. “It’s going to be awesome to just go out there and play them. If we do happen to knock them off, it would be a huge boost for morale.”
The paths of the two programs started going in opposite directions following Oregon’s 42-3 victory at home over Cal last season. The Bears entered that game ranked sixth in the nation with hopes of making the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than a half-century—or even the BCS title game.
The Ducks were still reeling from a season-opening 19-8 loss at Boise State and trying to find their way under first-year coach Chip Kelly.
But Oregon jumped on Cal early, scoring three second-quarter touchdowns on the way to the rout that was the most lopsided the Bears had endured under coach Jeff Tedford.
“Anytime you get embarrassed like that, it sticks in the back of your mind,” Mohamed said. “We want to avenge that. Prove that we belong with these guys.”
Little has gone well for Cal since last year’s meeting. The Bears are just 10-9 in their past 19 games, losing six of those games by more than 20 points.
Oregon has gone in the opposite direction, winning 17 of 19 games to go to the Rose Bowl last season and move into the top spot in the polls and BCS standings this year.
The Ducks have been even better this season, led by first-year starting quarterback Darron Thomas, the nation’s leading rusher, LaMichael James, and receiver Jeff Maehl.
Oregon leads the nation with 54.7 points per game and 567.2 yards of total offense. The Ducks have topped 50 points six times and no team has held them below 40 points.
“They just have so many weapons and they spread you over the field so much and they’re so fast,” Tedford said. “With the running back that they have, it starts with being able to try to slow the run down. They wear you down. They play at such a fast tempo and if (James) finds a crease, he can make such big plays. They make huge plays in the run game.”
Cal struggled against Nevada’s high-powered running offense, losing 52-31 in September. But Tedford said the Ducks offer a different challenge by being more lateral than downhill.
But the Bears have been strong defensively most of the season. They have allowed the fewest yards per game in the Pac-10 and have held six of their nine opponents under 20 points.
The strength is on the defensive line, where end Cameron Jordan leads the way by pressuring the quarterback and being solid against the ground game.
“They’re athletic, they can run,” Kelly said. “They are tall, long agile guys who can really hold the point, get off their blocks and run to the ball. That and their linebackers are their strength. That front seven is as good a front seven as we’ll see.”
It will have to be because the Bears have had some problems on offense. While they topped 50 points three times against inferior competition, stronger teams like Arizona, USC and Oregon State have held them in check.
They are also without starting quarterback Kevin Riley, who went down with a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago.
Brock Mansion stepped in for him and led the Bears to their first road win of the season, a 20-13 victory at Pac-10 cellar dweller Washington State.
Mansion completed 12 of 24 passes for 171 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions against a Cougars team that has lost 16 straight conference games. Now, he gets to face the top team in the country.
“There’s nothing daunting about it at all,” Mansion said. “It’s a great opportunity. Everybody on this team is excited.”
Cal has been strong at home this season, winning all four games by an average of nearly 39 points per contest. But those games came against the likes of UC Davis, Colorado, UCLA and Arizona State, not the No. 1 team in the country.
The Bears have also won three straight at home against the Ducks, who have no players who have won in Berkeley.
“They’re undefeated at home and we know we’re going to get their best shot,” linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. “I feel like our team has done a really good job staying key to the task at hand and focusing on one team at a time.”
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