BERKELEY — Cal first-year coach Justin Wilcox spent much of the season talking about the parity in the Pac-12, a point the Golden Bears seemed to take to heart when they upset then-No. 8 Washington State last month.
Since then, things have gone south for Wilcox’s team.
Cal (4-5, 1-5) has lost two straight and heads into Saturday’s home finale against Oregon State with little margin for error as it attempts to become bowl eligible for the second time since 2011.
Like the Bears, the Beavers (1-7, 0-5) have also struggled in conference play but have played much better in two games since Cory Hall was named interim coach following Gary Andersen’s abrupt departure in October.
Oregon State, which lost five of its first six games by an average of 31.5 points, has dropped its last two by four points total. That includes a 15-14 defeat to Stanford on Oct. 26 when the Beavers gave up a touchdown with 20 seconds remaining.
Wilcox said Oregon State’s turnaround under Hall is indicative of the balance of power and talent in the Pac-12. The Beavers have won seven of the last 10 games overall between the two teams and six of the past seven at Memorial Stadium.
“They’ve done a really good job two weeks in a row,” Wilcox said. “They’re playing emotional, in a good way. It’ll be a great challenge for us. Like a lot of the teams in our conference, they’re playing confident and hard right now.”
For the Bears the math is simple the rest of the way: Beat the Beavers and either UCLA or Stanford in the final two weeks and an invitation to a postseason bowl game awaits. Two losses in those games, though, means the start of another early offseason.
Cal defensive end James Looney, who will be one of 21 seniors honored before the game, figures Saturday will be emotional either way.
“It’ll mean a lot,” Looney said. “Berkeley is one of the greatest places in the world. It was a great opportunity. Then again, we’ve got two more games too and hopefully we can get to a bowl game.”
To do that, the Bears will have to first find a way to contain Beavers running back Ryan Nall who recently moved into 10th place on the school’s all-time rushing list. Nall rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns on only 14 carries when Oregon State beat Cal in 2015.
“At the end of the day we have to stop the run,” Looney said. “Stop the run and we win the game. If we do that, we’ll be all right.”
Here are a few other things to know when Cal hosts Oregon State on Saturday:
PLAYER PETITION: Following the Beavers’ close loss to Stanford, a group of players started the social media hashtage #HallIn to indicate their support for Hall.
An anonymous petition was started, and has been signed by more than 1,500 people. “We feel that he is best suited to lead us in all areas: physically, meantally, and spiritually. He knows the heart of this team and has connected with us in ways far beyond just football and just football players. As a team, we would follow this man through hell and back knowing we will be victorious,” the petition said.
Hall was clearly flattered by the support and addressed with the team, but prepping for Cal was the task at hand. “I turned their attention back to, ‘Just win,’” Hall said. “Just win baby.”
LUTON UPDATE: Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton started throwing a bit in practice this past week for the first time since he sustained a thoracic spine fracture on Sept. 16 at Washington State. There is still no timeline for his return. Oregon State has ruled him out indefinitely. “Jake Luton wants to get back on the field,” Hall said. “How many quarterbacks in that situation and that scenario would want to battle back from that?”
HIGH PRAISE: Washington State Mike Leach singled out Nall this week when asked about Stanford’s Bryce Love. “We’ve got a lot of great running backs in this conference,” he said. “I actually think the one at Oregon State is the best one in the conference. “First of all, he’s big. Second of all, he’s faster than you think. Third of all, he’s very elusive. The other thing is, the guy catches the ball really well. The guy blocks pretty good.”