BERKELEY — Jaydn Ott had to know Auburn’s players might read his remarks. But the message was intended for his teammates.
“There’s a lot of focus on the name Auburn,” Cal’s sophomore running back said this week in advance of the Tigers’ visit to Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. “And, you know, what I see on film is just like, not really in comparison to what their name is.
“So I just want to get that in my guys’ heads, you know, the name doesn’t mean anything. At the end of the day, they’re still human and we have just as much of a chance as they do to go in there and get a win.”
Auburn (1-0) is a 6.5-point favorite over the Bears (1-0) in the first-ever meeting between the programs. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. with the game on ESPN.
Ott, who ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns in Cal’s 58-21 win at North Texas last week, went on to say it will be “very encouraging when we do get this win.”
Told he sounded rather confident that Cal will win, Ott responded, “Yeah, we are.”
The Bears have had some rough outings over the years against Southeastern Conference opponents, none worse than a 66-0 loss at Alabama in 1973. But Cal actually has won its past three games vs. SEC teams, beating Ole Miss home and away in 2017 and ’19, and knocking off Tennessee 45-31 at Berkeley in 2007.
Cal coach Justin Wilcox declined to say this week whether starting quarterback Sam Jackson V would be available. Jackson, who left the North Texas game in the second quarter with an injury to his left (non-throwing) arm, said he would be a “game-time decision,” then added, “I’m expecting to play.”
This game matches two teams hoping to get back on track after three challenging seasons. Cal was 10-18 from 2020 through ’22 while Auburn — which played in the national championship game 10 years ago — was 17-19 over the same span.
Both teams crushed overmatched opponents in their opener, with the Tigers beating UMass 59-14. Cal rolled up 669 yards, including 357 on the ground.
“Offensively, they’re very scary. That tailback is one of the best I’ve seen,” first-year Auburn coach Hugh Freeze said this week.
What makes Ott so good?
“Just hand it to him,” Freeze said. “It ain’t like they have to create some special field. Just run inside zone or outside zone or counter with him and if it’s semi-blocked well, he’s a handful.”
That will be Cal’s challenge on Saturday night — to at least “semi-block” a big and aggressive SEC defense. Freeze hired former Baylor defensive coordinator Ron Roberts, whose blitzing schemes produced four sacks and six quarterback hurries last week.
Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital played against Roberts’ Baylor defense the past two years while he was head coach at Texas State.
“One of the keys is we’ve got to stay out of those passing downs, third-and-longs. That’s when he’s very dangerous in what he does,” Spavital said. “Once he gets you behind the chains, he’s very disruptive. He can get a little exotic.”
In other words, the Bears have to be able to run the ball. “This is a true test this weekend,” Spavital said. “It’s going to be a physical, violent game.”
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Ott has averaged 166 rushing yards (9.2 yards per carry) in games vs. UC Davis, Arizona, Stanford and North Texas — Cal’s lesser opponents the past two seasons. In nine other games, he’s averaged just 47 yards (3.6 per carry).
It boils down to the Cal offensive line, which has been a weakness the past several years, prompting new O-line coach Mike Bloesch to challenge his guys.
“We weren’t really satisfied with last season,” junior Brian Driscoll said. “Starting in winter as soon as Bloesch came in, he told us, ‘We want to be the unit that wins games for this team.’”
They’ll get their chance on Saturday night.
NOTE: The Bears and Tigers were originally scheduled to play at Berkeley in 2020 and at Auburn in ’21. But the arrangement was altered when Auburn got the chance to play a home-and-home vs. Penn State. Cal is scheduled to play at Auburn next Sept. 7, pending any potential changes related to the Bears’ move to the Atlantic Coast Conference.