BERKELEY, Calif. – The challenge is more than daunting, facing an Oregon offense that leads the nation in points per game, whose first-half output of 36 points per game would rank 29th in the nation, who put up a staggering 62 points and 730 yards at USC.
And yet, the California defense has carried a certain attitude throughout the week. Not a swagger, not arrogance, but the understanding it can at least slow down the ‘blur.'
"I think we'd be naïve to not know who we're playing and the success that they have had, but we have also had times where our defense has done a pretty good job against these guys," Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said Thursday. "It's an exciting challenge to go out and play such a good team."
Two years ago, Oregon escaped Memorial Stadium with a 15-13 win, the only game decided by single digits in the regular season en route to a berth in the BCS championship game.
Last season, Cal held a 15-14 lead at halftime, ultimately falling in Autzen Stadium after being outscored 29-0 after the break.
Those defenses, however, weren't as thoroughly depleted by injuries like this year's installment. Starting defensive ends Kendrick Payne (finger) and Deandre Coleman (ankle), inside linebacker Jalen Jefferson (concussion), and cornerback Marc Anthony (concussion) are all "game-time decisions," Tedford said, to say nothing of the list of key players that have been lost for the season, or the bumps and bruises that have accumulated over a schedule that does not include a bye week.
"I'm still kind of dinged up, but I don't care," said outside linebacker Chris McCain, who is dealing with a sprained ankle. "We're going to bring what we got."
That lack of depth could be most evident if Oregon is able to establish its trademark tempo, never huddling while trying to snap the ball 15 to 17 seconds after the end of the previous play. Cal has been doing its best to replicate that in practice, to admittedly mixed results. Tedford noted that the scout team offense must sometimes slow down to ensure it gives the defense the necessary look, not that it was obvious to McCain.
"After every play, there is another ball already ready to go," McCain said. "Our coaches have us moving fast, real fast."
The challenge now is to translate that speed into action, as Oregon is as fast as it has been at every position since adopting Kelly's spread option attack. Redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, while also breaking off runs of 86, 58, 28, and 27 yards this season. Redshirt senior running back Kenjon Barner is coming off a school-record 321 yards rushing at USC, while sophomore De'Anthony Thomas might be the most versatile weapon in the game, creating explosive plays as a running back, receiver, and return specialist.
But there will be no changes in how Cal approaches Oregon, McCain said.
"We're coming in with same schemes, same everything, same players, same coaches. We're not changing nothing for nobody," McCain said. "We got the right calls. We got to make them work.
"Defensively, we've been playing really well. We've been after everybody. Everybody is still playing like we got something to lose."
McCain might be right, as the Cal defense has yet to allow more than 28 points in any conference game this season (Utah had two 100-yard kick returns for touchdowns and a defensive score in the 49-27 Cal loss two weeks ago).
And while a bowl game is now out of the question, Cal can play spoiler, and send its seniors out winners in their final home game, giving McCain a tangible goal to strive for.
"I just really want to kill these dudes," McCain said. "Some seniors might not go to the league, but they got these last two games, the last two games they'll ever play. It ain't about the record. There are other people we are doing this for."
There is also the matter of pride, as Oregon is capable of embarrassing any opponent. As McCain put it, "They really will expose you.
"I just refuse to let them put up 50 points," he added. "It would be my fault, and I bet you everybody else on the defense would feel the same way."
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan