At the beginning of the season, I absolutely terrified of this game. And this was before we found out that Oregon State was actually going to be good this year. Think about it: the Bears were facing a Beavers squad has had Cal's number for the past six years, on the road, to finish the season (when the Beavers are firing on all cylinders).
Fortunately, I'm at a point where it doesn't hurt that much anymore. Naturally, I care and am rooting for this team, but I'll be frank, these losses don't leave me curled up in fetal position. I'm just a bit numb to everything at this point.
Here are a few quick keys to the game.
Stop the Run, Stop the Offense
For a while, it looked like QB Sean Mannion could do no wrong during OSU's winning streak. Sure, he could be pressured into mistakes, but was playing with a new level of confidence and poise, and the Bears rolled to a 5-0 record. Mannion was averaging 339.5 yards per game, and had an average QB rating of 141.3. Just solid stuff.
Then after a knee injury put him out of action, Cody Vaz came in and the Beavers showed little to no drop-off on offense, with Vaz completing over 60% of his passes with 3 TDs and no interceptions, leading the Beavers to 7-0 on the season.
When Mannion was presumed healthy enough to play again, things got messy. Mannion threw four interceptions in his return, and was pulled in favor of Cody Vaz. Vaz lead the Beavers on a game-tying TD drive, but the Beavers still fell to the Huskies.
Vaz got the start the following week in a win against the Sun Devils, but then was injured late in a game in a loss against Stanford the week after.
So it will be Sean Mannion who gets the nod at the Bears, seeing his first significant game action since his debacle of a performance against the Huskies. The question will be whether that was temporary blip, or whether he was just coming off a fast start.
When you look at his numbers against both Washington and WSU, I'm beginning to feel that it was more of the latter. I would rank Mannion in the upper tier of conference quarterbacks, but he can certainly be pressured into being a turnover prone QB.
It all starts with stopping the run game. OSU's passing offense is at its best when it's established the run in their power run game and on their signature fly sweeps. Once opposing defenses begin honing in on the run, the Beavers are able to hit their tight ends and fullbacks on quick outs and dig routes. Subsequently, once the secondary begins playing shallow to guard the flats, it begins to open up deeper passing zones, leaving Oregon States' quality receivers to begin ripping off huge catch after catch.
It sounds simple, but this becomes an incredibly difficult offense to stop because OSU's offense has been able to execute it pretty well. Their line has matured and is playing physical in the trenches and has been able to oppose their will on opposing defenses. The biggest reason the Bears beat the Beavers last season was because OSU had no run game to speak of. This year? Pretty decent rushing attack which creates a troublesome offense.
Cal's run defense was fantastic against Oregon last week, but it came at a huge cost. The Bears loaded up on the run, leaving their shaky secondary in some perilous positions, allowing them to get torched for 7 TDs. The Bears can't afford to load up the box, and will have to rely on simply winning individual battles, and not losing gap integrity with their front seven. Given how beat up this group is, it'll be a tough task.
Chip Away on Offense
Oregon State's defense is the biggest reason this team wins more games than it loses. They're not as flashy as some teams, but they play really disciplined ball. They keep plays in front of them. On the season, they've given up just 121 plays of 10+ yards (27th in the nation). They put themselves in defensible 3rd downs, and allow opponents to convert just 27.42% of their third downs on the season (5th in the nation).
The Bears are just going to have to be near-perfect on offense. Seriously. It's not that Oregon State's defense is that good, it's that they're that disciplined. The Beavers don't beat themselves on defense too much, but they've shown they can certainly be had with good play in the trenches, and mistake-free ball.
Raise your hand if you think that describes this team right now. Yeah...
It was hard for me to predict a win for this one at the beginning of the season, and it's even harder knowing the Bears are 3-8, and the Beavers are ranked and 7-2. The Bears show some fight, but can't keep up as the Beavers roll.
Prediction: Cal 24 Oregon State 31