BERKELEY (AP) — With his banged-up and beleaguered secondary still trying to get healthy, California coach Sonny Dykes wouldn’t mind getting a break in the schedule.
It won’t happen this week.
The Golden Bears host No. 6 Oregon and Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota on Friday in the first-ever college football game played at Levi’s Stadium, home to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
Dykes calls Mariota the best player in the country, an assertion few in the Pac-12 will argue against.
“You just don’t see many guys who are 6-4, 220 that can run like he can run,” Dykes said this week. “He makes good decisions, takes care of the ball. He’s one of those guys that he doesn’t run a lot but when he picks his spots he’s very effective. People have a hard time getting him on the ground.”
He’s also the last thing Cal’s defense need to see.
The Ducks (6-1, 3-1) have won five straight against the Bears and are positioning themselves to make another run at the Pac-12 championship behind their do-it-all quarterback while Cal is riding a three-game losing streak.
Mariota has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards this season and has at least one touchdown pass in each of the 33 games he’s played in at Oregon.
Barring injury, Mariota will complete a pass sometime in the first half against Cal and move into the Ducks’ record books as the school’s career passing leader.
More critically as far as the Bears are concerned, Mariota has been among the most precise quarterbacks in the country. He has a streak of 238 consecutive pass attempts without an interception dating back to last season. It’s the second-longest stretch in Oregon history behind Mariota’s streak of 353 set from 2012-13.
Considering Cal’s pass defense is ranked last in the Pac-12, Friday’s game is setting up as a potential field day for Mariota and the Ducks’ offense.
“I’ve said it before and I believe it, I think Mariota’s the best player in college football,” Dykes said. “I really do. I don’t think there’s anybody that means more to their team than he does. He’s a pretty unique talent.”
The Bears (4-3, 2-3) haven’t had much luck at all in their previous two games against Mariota.
As a freshman in 2012, the Oregon quarterback threw for 377 yards and a career-high six touchdown passes against Cal. He lightened up a bit last year but still passed for a pair of scores and ran for a third.
Turns out Mariota was only scratching the surface.
Oregon’s record-setting quarterback has 19 touchdown passes this season, giving him 82 in two-plus seasons. Mariota has not been intercepted since late last year and is second on the team with five rushing touchdowns.
The Ducks are also getting a big boost from running back Royce Freeman. The Oregon freshman is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games and is tied for seventh nationally with 11 touchdowns.
“Athletic people everywhere, speed everywhere,” Cal cornerback Cameron Walker said. “We just have to make sure that the 5-yard routes don’t turn into 15-yard routes. Minimizing the yards after catch is probably the most important thing.”
The Bears have been banged up defensively most of the season and it has taken its toll. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday scorched Cal for an NCAA-record 734 passing yards in the Cougars’ 60-59 loss on Oct. 4.
The upside for the Bears has been their own quarterback.
Jared Goff is second in the nation with 24 touchdown passes, has thrown for 2,482 yards and owns a 173.1 passer efficiency rating. Mariota’s mark of 191.0 leads all college quarterbacks.
“They’re different,” Dykes said. “Mariota’s a pretty unique talent just in terms of size and speed. Jared’s kind of designed different. He’s more of a traditional pocket-passer quarterback.”