It is seemingly a five-star recipe for a colossal mismatch, but the Cal football team embraces the confluence of obstacles arriving Saturday night at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
The Golden Bears (1-2), with as many as seven true freshmen in the rotation, will play their first road game of their season in their Pac-12 opener against No. 2 Oregon, the nation’s second-highest scoring team.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” said Cal freshman quarterback Jared Goff, the nation’s total offense leader.
The Ducks (3-0) are 36-point favorites.
“Our guys are excited. I’m excited,” first-year Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “There’s a little bit of an unknown to see how we can handle it. It’s a tough environment. It’ll be a challenge for us.”
Playing the Ducks in Eugene is a challenge for everyone. Oregon has won 33 of 36 home games, dating back to the start of the 2008 season, averaging 49.1 points in those games.
It’s not just the fast and aggressive Oregon defense that will test Goff, but an Autzen crowd that attempts to intimidate visitors.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has been very impressed by Goff, but said of the crowd, “We want them to be crazy Saturday night, to make him uncomfortable.”
Goff anticipates an “interesting” experience. “I’m sure they’ll be yelling all sorts of things at me. I’m expecting that.”
Goff has plenty of youthful company. Cal has 12 redshirt or true freshmen on its two-deep chart, compared to just four for Oregon.
“If you look at the guys performing at a high level, it’s a lot of our young players,” Dykes said. “That’s encouraging.”
The Bears are not piping in noise at practice this week in preparation for what is one of the loudest stadiums in the Pac-12.
Dykes explained that because the Bears deliver their plays via hand signals from the sideline and the center calls the snap count, the impact of crowd noise is minimized. “That’s part of the reason we do that, so we’re not making a big adjustment when we go play on the road,” he said.
The bye week following Cal’s 52-34 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 14 allowed the Bears to heal up some, but also has helped young players on defense become more comfortable as they anticipate facing perhaps the nation’s fastest team.
“You can start to see our guys moving around faster defensively because I think we’re more certain in what we’re doing,” Dykes said. “It allows us to play a little bit faster. We’re certainly going to need to.”
The Bears ranked 119th nationally (out of 123) in scoring defense, allowing 42.0 points per game.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Barton, who missed the Ohio State game with a knee injury, is back at practice and competing with Khairi Fortt for a starting job. Alejandro Crosthwaite has the edge over Geoffrey Gibson in the competition to replace right guard Matt Cochran, out probably a month after ankle surgery.
It appears redshirt freshman Freddie Tagaloa will retain his starting left tackle position after Dykes opened up competition last week.
“Freddie has really improved,” Dykes said. “Young players who have a level of success can get complacent. We want to guard against that. We want (Tagaloa) to be a dominant football player, not just a guy.”
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