SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — For 15 minutes, the Cal football team kept pace with No. 6 Oregon. Cal drew first blood, scoring on the game’s opening drive. After Oregon responded with a touchdown of its own, the Bears reached the end zone for a second time. Again, the Ducks retaliated. For a quarter, Cal’s offense, which came into the game ranked No. 10 in scoring, matched the Ducks’ sixth-ranked scoring offense.
It wouldn’t last long. In the second and third quarters, the Bears only scored three touchdowns. In that same span, the Ducks put up 38 points, stretching their lead to 24 in the third quarter.
On Friday night at Levi’s Stadium, Oregon rolled past the Bears, 59-41. In the first college football game played at the home of the San Francisco 49ers, Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota threw for 326 yards and five scores, and as a whole, the Oregon offense racked up nearly 600 yards.
“They really got a couple different speeds that they can go out,” said free safety Stefan McClure. “They got their little NASCAR super-fast speed that they showed us a couple times. Then they just have their normal tempo speed.”
Oregon (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) began to pull away in the second quarter. Holding a 17-14 lead, Mariota located tight end Pharaoh Brown in the back of the end zone for a touchdown with 10:23 remaining in the first half.
On Cal’s (4-4, 2-4) next possession, Cal quarterback Jared Goff appeared to connect with Kenny Lawler on a third down. But Lawler lost control of the ball, and the referees ruled the play incomplete. After Cal head coach Sonny Dykes challenged the call, the officials upheld the ruling on the field.
After the decision, Dykes ripped into the Pac-12 referees, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that backed up Cal’s punt unit to the 20-yard line.
Cole Leininger banged the ensuing punt to the Oregon 42-yard line. Seeing a lane toward the right sideline, the Ducks’ punt returner Charles Nelson shot through the gap. As he approached the sideline, Nelson quickly reversed directions, cutting toward the middle of the field. Cal’s Stephen Anderson didn’t stand a chance, unsuccessfully flailing at Nelson as he shot toward the end zone. Leaving another man in his wake, Nelson plunged into the end zone with 8:52 left in the first half.
Nelson’s 58-yard punt return put the exclamation point on a 24-0 Oregon scoring run and gave the Ducks a 31-14 lead.
Cal answered right back. Goff, who threw for 360 yards and 2 touchdowns, capped a nine-play, 67-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Anderson. Then, Todd Barr forced a fumble and Michael Lowe claimed possession for Cal, returning the ball to Oregon’s five-yard line. On fourth and goal, running back Daniel Lasco dove over the trenches and into the end zone. And with 3:31 remaining in the first half, the Bears only trailed 31-28.
Cal’s defense struck again. With Oregon driving down the field, a tipped pass in the Bears’ end zone landed in the hands of Stefan McClure, who gladly accepted the invitation to intercept. The pick broke Mariota’s streak of 253 passing attempts without an interception.
“He’s just a good football player,” Dykes said of Mariota. “Physically, there’s not many people like him. … It’s more fun watching him on television than playing against him at this point, I’ll say that.”
But the Bears failed to take advantage of the turnover and Oregon made them pay. After the punt, the Ducks marched 60 yards down the field on just three plays, the last being a Mariota to Dwayne Stanford touchdown pass. At halftime, Oregon held a 38-28 lead over Cal.
Oregon quickly extended the lead back to 17 on the opening possession of the second half, when Byron Marshall hauled in a wide-open 54-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline. Then, with 7:24 remaining in the third quarter, Royce Freeman’s two-yard touchdown run extended the Ducks’ lead to 52-28.
Cal closed the gap when Goff found Maurice Harris for a five-yard touchdown with 3:54 remaining in the third quarter. But Oregon asserted its dominance of the Bears for the remainder of the game, and Cal failed to cut any deeper into the lead.
“We got to tighten the screws,” Dykes said. “We can’t make those kinds of mistakes and expect to beat a good football team.”