BERKELEY-For all the talk about the vaunted Oregon offense, it was the Cal defense that grabbed all the attention on Saturday evening-and even a touchdown on a fumble recovery by senior Derrick Hill. But, despite holding the Ducks to a season-low in points and yards, the Bears could not grab a win against the top team in the country, falling 15-13 in Strawberry Canyon.
"They played their hearts out tonight, there's no question about it," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "To hold that offense to one touchdown is just great. They prepared well, the defensive coaches had a great plan, the kids executed it. All week long, they sold out with preparation and belief and intensity going into the game, it was awesome. It's a shame. I feel sick for the kids."
The Cal defense held Oregon to a season-low eight points at the half-coming on a punt return for a touchdown by Cliff Harris-and just one offensive touchdown all night. The Ducks tallied a season-low 317 total yards of offense on 162 yards rushing and just 155 yards passing. Oregon's previously-worst performance was a 385-yard effort against Arizona State.
"I think, for the most part, we were able to contain the run," said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "Over the course of the game, it appeared that we were able to create some negative plays and get them into some second- and third-and-long situations. I knew we had to do that to have an opportunity to put ourselves into position to win. We didn't give up the big play, and that was one thing we were guarding on, throughout the course of the week, and talking on all the time: we didn't want to give up a big play, and, other than the sudden change there that we gave them a touchdown on, I don't think we did that throughout the course of the night."
The Ducks only had four plays of 10 yards or more, and only one of those went for more than 20 yards-a 22-yard touchdown completion from quarterback Darron Thomas to Jeffrey Maehl in the fourth quarter.
"They're an explosive, big-play offense, and there are probably 21 to 28 points per game where guys are just running uncovered and free in the secondary, and they get a lot of big plays off of that," Pendergast said. "We wanted to not allow that tonight."
The Bears clamped down on Thomas, holding him to 15-of-29 passing, sacking him twice and hurrying him twice while notching seven pass breakups, led by Josh Hill, who had three. But it was another Hill who had perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game. Senior defensive tackle Derrick blasted through the Ducks offensive line with 9:18 left in the third quarter, sacking Thomas for 12 yards while stripping the ball from the Oregon signal-caller's hand. Hill scooped up the ball at the Ducks' five-yard line and rolled into the end zone for his first TD since his senior year of high school.
"That was a great call by Coach Pendergast to put us in a situation where we were expecting pass, and we always practice strip drills and strip mechanics with Coach (Tosh) Lupoi on a daily basis, so when the opportunity came, I saw my opportunity and too advantage of it," Hill said. "I wasn't anticipating it coming out as easily as it did, and then when it came out, I knew it was my ball to get."
For parts of the game, the Bears played a 3-3-5 alignment, with three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, employing one-usually senior strong safety Chris Conte-as a quarterback spy.
"All the rest of the Pac-10 can take notes right now," Conte said. "We played zero-coverage the whole game. I was responsible for the quarterback. They do all that zone-read stuff, and my sole job was to be on the quarterback, and then, if I can help out late on pass, then help out. Everybody just accounted for a man. That was the key to success, right there. I had no doubt that we were going to win this game, and I knew that our defense would come out and execute the game plan. We had a great week of practice, everyone was really fired up, and it was ripe for the upset. We all knew that, if we came out here and executed, this team was very beatable. They had big plays against other teams, and, in watching films, you could see that people were making mistakes, and they exploit those mistakes."
But, while the Cal defense made really just one costly mistake all night-the pass to Maehl-it ended up being two mistakes on special teams that spelled the end for the Bears.
The first came in the second quarter, when a 57-yard punt by Bryan Anger was caught at the Oregon 36-yard line by the Pac-10's best punt returner: Harris. Harris juked and jived his way 64 yards back up field for the Ducks' first score of the night, a score made even more costly with the addition of a two-point conversion run by Dion Jordan which put Oregon up, 8-7.
After the TD strike from Thomas to Maehl at the beginning of the second half, the Bears came back with Hill's scoring rumble and, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Cal was once again in position to strike, netting a fourth-and-five at the Ducks' seven-yard line. The situation was eerily similar to a fourth-quarter fourth-and-one at the Wildcats' six-yard line several weeks ago in Tucson.
"This felt reminiscent of Arizona, when we came out, executed our plan and really played well on defense and somehow didn't come out with a victory," Conte said. "We're frustrated, angry and disappointed."
The margin of this particular contest was so tight that the game ended up turning on what amounts to a muscle twitch or a bout of restless leg syndrome on the part of junior placekicker Giorgio Tavecchio, who was called for illegal motion in the backfield on what would have been a 23-yard field goal to put the Bears ahead 16-15 at the very start the fourth quarter.
"Basically, I took my steps back, and it was pretty loud," Tavecchio said, pointing out the fact that he was kicking towards the south uprights, right in front of a sea of green and yellow. "We don't have a rhythmic cadence, but the snapper, the holder and I have somewhat of a rhythm, in terms of how fast the ball comes back and it's usually a couple of seconds after the cadence. Because it was loud, the snapper held the cadence, or didn't hear it, so the ball came back later, so my body naturally started to drift over, and once I heard the cadence, the ball should come shortly thereafter, and it didn't, so I jumped. I caught myself and still ended up making the kick, but I guess it was an illegal procedure.
"I lined up again, and I felt pretty fine. My heart was beating, but I breathed deeply and visualized my soft plant foot, feeling the self confidence through my body, and I felt like I hit the ball solidly again, but it just pulled a little bit. It felt like a great kick, came off my foot well, but it just didn't get through the pipes, which is where it had to go. I'm obviously very, very disappointed."
Tedford, for his part, consoled Tavecchio, as did his teammates, but when the game came down to less than a field goal, it's hard to not look at what could have been.
"You can try and take something out of it, but it hurts even worse to have a chance to win the game and then come away with a loss," Tedford said. "You have a chance to win the football game and didn't get it done. When you pour your heart and soul into something and you give the effort you gave and you leave it all on the field, there's really no consolation to it. You can say it's a moral victory, but in your gut, it doesn't feel any better."
But, after Tavecchio was flagged, he was backed up to try and attempt a 29-yarder from the left hash mark, and his kick sailed wide right on what would turn out to be Cal's final scoring opportunity.
"There's no excuse for it," Tedford said. "We kick field goals everyday, and there's no excuse for jumping the gun like that. It's poise under pressure, and he didn't have it right there."
The Bears offense was, to say the least, ineffective. Cal gained a total of 193 yards on offense, with starting tailback Shane Vereen accounting for 112 on the ground and 10 receiving yards all by himself. Junior quarterback Brock Mansion, starting just his second career game, looked even more jittery than he did in last week's win at Washington State.
"He's a young quarterback, he's inexperienced, he was rushing some things, his feet were hurrying, he's just an inexperienced guy and a lot of things are moving really fast," Tedford said. "He made some key throws to convert some third downs, but there were some others that obviously he would like to have back, and could be executed better."
Junior quarterback Brock Mansion went 10-of-27 for just 69 yards, and, though he was hurt by several big drops, was far from accurate with many of his throws.
"I feel like I was playing a little too fast," Mansion said. "Before the game, I knew that they were going to bring pressure, so I was pretty conscious of me getting the ball out. I knew we had great offensive line protection, but I just didn't want to test that. I wanted to get the ball out, and I played a little too fast.
"They played great. We had a great game plan going in, protection-wise, and we studied their pressures and their tendancies very well, so we came in with a very good idea of what they were going to do to try and get pressure on me. I thought (the line) played great; they were really communicating well up front-Chris Guarnero was making great calls on the line-just a great five-man performance."
On several occasions, Mansion would over-throw or under-throw Marvin Jones and true freshman playmaker Keenan Allen, including a few passes where Allen had room to run.
"They've got a good defense, but we've just got to make more plays in the passing game; we've got to be able to make plays," Tedford said. "We didn't make enough. We converted some third downs, and we had that drive down to get in position to score there, but it's just not consistent enough in the passing game. We can't be one-dimensional."
Mansion took much of the blame for the inadequacy of the offense on the evening.
"I put a lot of that on my shoulders," Mansion said. "Especially in the first half, we had some great calls by Coach (Andy) Ludwig to put us in good situations, and I've just got to put the ball on the receivers and they make one catch here, and we got a whole new set of downs and a great change of field position on that one to Anthony (Miller), but I rushed and threw a little behind. I was making all my reads. Every guy I threw to was wide open, but I've just got to put it on them. It wasn't so much what they were doing as it was me, settling down and trying to get in a good rhythm."