After an uncharacteristic poor start to the season on defense for California, coach Justin Wilcox’s squad is rounding into form in recent weeks.
Cal is coming off its best defensive performance in years when the Bears beat Colorado last week for their first conference win of the season. But the task gets much tougher for the Golden Bears (2-5, 1-3 Pac-12) when they host Oregon State (5-2, 3-1) on Saturday.
“It is a different challenge," Wilcox said. "Our guys understand that. It’ll take a really good week of preparation because they’re a talented outfit and they have really good scheme.”
The Beavers are one of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 this season and come into the game leading the conference in scoring (35.1 points per game) and ranking seventh nationally on the ground (245 yards per game) led by B.J. Baylor and an experienced offensive line.
Baylor is sixth in the nation at 118.6 yards per game and has topped the 100-yard mark in four straight and five of the past six games. Baylor ran for 152 yards in last week's win over Utah.
“He’s a very talented guy," Wilcox said. “Runs downhill, one cut. He can run through arm tackles and if he gets out in the open field he can go. He creates explosive plays.”
Cal is doing a much better job limiting those of late. After allowing 448.3 yards per game and 28.7 points per game through its first three games of the season, Cal’s defense has toughened up of late.
The Bears held Oregon to 24 points and completely shut down Colorado, recording six sacks and allowing only 104 yards of offense in the 26-3 win last week.
“They play to their strength, in regards to quality football on both sides," Beavers coach Jonathan Smith said. “They’re not trying to get into a track meet and they don’t need to because they’re so good on defense year in and year out.”
A win would make the Beavers bowl eligible for the first time since 2013, the longest active drought in the Pac-12. Oregon State had gone to 11 bowl games in 15 seasons before hitting this rut.
While the Beavers have aspirations of going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1964 season, the focus right now is on Cal.
“We’re not overlooking them in any way," Smith said. “Each year is different... Yeah, we beat these guys last year, but we beat the Ducks last year, too, and I guarantee we won’t be overlooking them.”
Oregon State has rushed for at least 200 yards in six straight games. That's the longest streak for the Beavers since the 1993 team did that in the final seven games.
But Oregon State has gotten there this year with much more balance as the 1993 team failed to complete a pass in two of those seven games.
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Bears safety Elijah Hicks was all over the field last week. He had six tackles, one sack, an interception and 2 1/2 tackles for loss to lead the defense.
“Elijah has been playing good football for us for a long time,” Wilcox said. “That may have been the best game he has played since he’s been here. He was very productive. He did a great job.”
At his Monday press conference, Smith revealed safety Alton Julian would likely miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury. Julian was injured in the first half of the Beavers’ victory over Utah. Smith’s absence will likely impact the game planning for Saturday because defensive back Jaydon Grant will miss the first half because of targeting.
But the Beavers could see the return of starting left guard Jake Levengood who was injured against Washington State and didn’t play against the Utes. Smith said he’s “hopeful” Levengood will play in Berkeley.
Cal quarterback Chase Garbers provided a big boost to the running game last week, rushing for a career-high 96 yards. Garbers also became Cal’s career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,025, passing Joe Kapp’s total of 931.
Garbers also tied the school record for most career TD runs by a QB with his ninth.
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