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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Cristobal candid about one of Ducks' most pressing needs as they prepare for Cal

COURTESY PHOTO: AL SERMINO - Cal linebacker Evan Weaver, one of the Bears stars who will play Oregon on Saturday, returns an interception for a touchdown to spark coach Justin Wilcox's team to its 12-10 upset of Washington last year.Oregon's Mario Cristobal is a very articulate coach, and he does a great of breaking down the game for the media and fans. He'll get really technical about it, which helps novice followers and even educated media members.

And, he does veer off message to be open and honest, which is refreshing. Too many times, as a media member, one can't help but be somewhat annoyed when football coaches act disingenuously.

Cristobal checks many of the boxes, in my opinion, that make a good coach, personality included.

So, as the Ducks (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) prepare for Cal (4-1, 1-1), 5 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium, Cristobal admits that the Ducks need to improve, particularly in the run game.

Their defense appears to have the staying power to be a difference-maker in the Pac-12. It has allowed league lows of 10.5 points and 262.8 yards per game. Quarterback Justin Herbert has been good, so far, even with injured receivers. But the run game does need to be better if the Ducks want to win the Pac-12 championship.

"We're off. We are. We're out of sync," Cristobal said, of the run game. "We know it's not good enough, and we take a lot of pride in that (run game). We expect to have better results going forward."

The numbers are not bad — 154.8 yards per game, 4.4 yards per carry, five touchdowns. But, against Auburn and Stanford, Oregon had only 151 yards combined on 63 carries and 2.4 yards per rush (granted, center Jake Hanson sat out the Stanford game).

Enter the Bears, who have a very good pass defense and an offense wrecker in linebacker Evan Weaver. But, the Bears give up 151.2 yards per game on the ground (seventh in Pac-12), and just consider the past two Oregon-California meetings: The Ducks scored 45 points in 2018 and 42 in 2017, and churned out a combined 588 rushing yards on 98 carries (6.0 yards per carry).

Yes, Cal is a good team against which to heal one's run game.

Meanwhile, it's hard for me to imagine California, which is coming off a 24-17 home loss to Arizona State, finding sustained offensive success against the Ducks, especially with QB Chase Garbers (right shoulder) injured and perhaps out.

The Bears had 13 first downs and 245 yards offense against the Sun Devils. They averaged 2.8 yards in barely topping 100 yards rushing, and threw for 140 yards.

Some say the Bears have better skill talent. Christopher Brown Jr. has 389 yards rushing (4.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Nikko Remigio leads four receivers with double-digit receptions, and he has 12. Garbers has completed 59.1% of his passes — not great — and averages 190.4 yards per game. He's thrown eight TD passes and two interceptions. (Devin Modster replaced him in the ASU game and went 5 of 14 for 23 yards).

I'm thinking Oregon wins on Saturday, but it could be close.

One can't overlook that Cal beat Washington 20-19 on Sept. 7 in Seattle, although that might end up looking like a fluke, given the weather delay and power outage and the game not concluding until Sunday morning. The Bears also outlasted an SEC team, Ole Miss, on the road, in a solid, 28-20 victory on Sept. 21.

Cal coach Justin Wilcox lamented his team's poor tackling against ASU and how the Bears allowed Sun Devils QB Jayden Daniels to have too much time to throw. Also, Eno Benjamin ran for 100 yards with three TDs for Arizona State.

"Horrible," Weaver said of Cal's defense. "They outplayed us, out-schemed us."

And, of course, the Cal season could be derailed, if Garbers remains out.

It's not unusual for coaches to follow a script — the aforementioned "message" — and Cristobal shared his notes last week with reporters about what he wants to see with his team:

n He wants the Ducks to get healthy (Hanson and receivers, including Mycah Pittman and Juwan Johnson, etc.).

n He wants Oregon to focus on technique and fundamentals, and being in football condition.

n He is asking for "professional and personal development," academically — as in working on networking, as classes begin on Tuesday.

n He stresses that the Ducks must be more disciplined, i.e., curb penalties (although they have only 17 in four games, which is not bad).

n He emphasizes ball security (Herbert and the receivers have done their part, with no interceptions, and ball carriers have lost only two fumbles).

Some people question Cristobal's game management and game planning and adjustments by he and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo — justifiably so — but it's hard to question that the second-year head man firmly has put the Ducks on a positive path forward.

Now, can they beat Washington and others? We'll see.

But, a loss to Cal would be quite surprising.

The pick: Oregon 31, Cal 17

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