Eugene, Ore. -- As Oregon football headed into their bye week, Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal was asked to assess his teams' rushing attack through the first four weeks of the season.
"We're off," said Cristobal. "You know, we're out of sync a little bit. And it starts with making sure that we're on the same page. We are. So that's not an issue. Technique and fundamentals come into play. If the box is loaded we still gotta find a way to make some yards and it falls on all of us. So schematically we have some good things, we're also working on some different things to create some wrinkles to create some eyewash to help us achieve what we want to achieve and we know that's not good enough."
So it only made sense that a great deal of the questions in preparation for the Cal game were about the running game, particularly how it would stack up against a Golden Bears defense led by Evan Weaver, one of the top linebackers in all of college football.
"Cal's defense is great," said offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo. "They''re coached well, they've got great players, they play hard, theyve got a good scheme. They're no different than they have been."
Weaver, in particular, has been a revelation for a traditionally powerful Cal defense under head coach Justin Wilcox. The senior was under the radar as a Pac-12 linebacker, sometimes overshadowed by Washington's Ben Burr-Kirven, but Weaver has burst onto the scene averaging 15.6 tackles per game in the first five games of the season.
"I think sometimes it's easier to isolate guys that are out of the box than in the box at a lot of levels. He's always on the field," Arroyo explains. "They move him around a lot. He plays all over. He'll play inside, outside, inside the box, outside the box, on the line of the scrimmage, in the Mike. So you can't really say you know where he's gonna be."
Cal's defense will be testing Oregon's running game in particular. The Ducks have averaged roughly 154 yards per game on the ground, but have struggled in short yardage situations specifically. CJ Verdell continues to lead the team in carries and rushing yards, but has yet to have a breakout game like he had during his freshman campaign in 2018. What Cristobal says is an issue of sync, Verdell and veteran offensive lineman Shane Lemieux says is just about reworking some of the basics.
"We're right there. Each game is different. Sometimes it's not gonna be pretty," says running back CJ Verdell. "When I watch film, I think there's something I can improve on. [Like] working on my reads and making sure my tracks are always in the right place.
"We really just started from scratch kind of with Day 1 fall camp fundamentals in [individual] stuff," offensive lineman Shane Lemieux follows up. "And really, I think we got our bodies back, got our mental focus back and really just kinda got away from football for a couple days and just relaxed. We came back today and ran the ball really well and so that's gonna remain a big emphasis."
With the Pac-12 schedule fully underway, and zero undefeated teams left in the conference, the Ducks may be one of the west coasts' last hope to make the College Football Playoff. Currently, ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oregon a 7 percent chance to make the playoffs but a 57.9 percent chance to win the Pac-12. Cal, coming off a loss at home to Arizona State, holds a marquee win over Washington, who was picked along with the Ducks to be the standard bearers in the conference.
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