A cold night in Eugene seemed a bit colder to the Cal football team, which lost a bit more of its 3-0 luster with its second straight loss in Pac-12 play, losing 45-24 to the Ducks. The Oregon offense spent most of its time in the end zone, the Oregon defense spent most of its time in the backfield, and Cal quarterback Ross Bowers spent most of his time on his back.
“We thought we’d come in and play better than we did. Oregon’s a really good team, and they beat us in every phase tonight,” said head coach Justin Wilcox.
Oregon took the ball first and, for the first six plays of the drive, looked unstoppable. After a 20-yard Royce Freeman run got the Ducks near the red zone, an incomplete shovel pass (that initially looked like a fumble recovered by Cal) stalled the once-promising drive. Oregon would nail a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead.
Bowers and the Bears couldn’t mount any answer, though, and endured a 3-and-out on the following drive. The lack of injured wide receivers Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall haunted the offense from its very first possession.
The Ducks, though, began rolling. After forcing a horrendous pass interference call on a deep route to move the ball near midfield, a 37-yard strike down the middle to Brenden Schooler deepened the shutout, 10-0. If the Bears wanted some tips on moving the ball, a veritable clinic was happening right in front of them.
Cal’s next drive started off a bit better, gaining one first down, but losses on consecutive plays, then an incomplete pass, brought back out busy Bear punter Dylan Klumph. A combination of defensive mistakes reminiscent of the Cal of old, including silly penalties and an absence of run defense, quickly found the Ducks in paydirt for the second time in the first quarter. A QB keeper from Justin Herbert put his team up 17-0 — the score at the end of the first quarter.
The next Bears drive was aided by penalties aplenty. A targeting call moved the Bears near midfield, and a pass interference converted a fourth down. But a big Oregon sack on a third down moved the ball out of field goal range, and that was the end of that. The subsequent two Bears drives didn’t even get that far.
With less than two minutes to go in the half, Oregon went to work from its 7. Despite moving well without Heisman candidate running back Freeman, who had 51 yards rushing on six attempts before getting hurt in the first quarter, the Bears held the Ducks. Vic Wharton III fumbled the resulting punt, giving it to Oregon on Cal’s 42. But as Oregon looked deep on the following play, linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk nabbed an interception and returned it into the red zone. Bowers would connect with Jordan Veasy for the 18-yard touchdown on the very next play to end the shutout and bring the score to 17-7 entering halftime.
Cal took the second half kickoff and promptly went 3-and-out. Bowers was taking some big hits, and it looked to be wearing on him. Oregon sped the game up on the ensuing drive, not huddling once during its impressive four-minute, 13-play and 73-yard touchdown drive that fittingly concluded with a dive up the gut from Kani Benoit to put the Ducks up 24-7.
The Bears mustered a quick answer, though, scoring in one play as Bowers hit Kanawai Noa for a 75-yard touchdown down the left seam. Bowers, despite the hits and Cal’s 11 total rushing yards to that point, was having himself a decent game. The first touchdown of Noa’s career got Cal closer, 24-14. Another stop from the Bears got the ball back, but this time there would be no heroics.
The following Ducks possession featured what seemed to be a quick score when Tony Brooks-James took a short pass 81 yards to the house. A low block penalty nixed the score, though, and the Bears defense would hold from there. The third quarter ended at 24-14 Ducks.
The fourth period quickly found the Bears facing a fourth down on their side of the field, and they would get it — a Vic Enwere scamper through the middle. A wheel route to Patrick Laird got the Bears into the red zone, but a sack and a near-interception brought the kicker out. Matt Anderson hit his mark, and Cal was within a score, 24-17.
The Ducks suddenly found themselves on the most important drive of the night, and they didn’t disappoint the Eugene faithful. A run — guess where — right up the gut of the Cal defense broke Benoit free, and the 68-yard scamper put the Ducks up 31-17. Benoit ended the game with 18 carries for 138 yards and two touchdowns, still somehow averaging fewer per carry than Freeman did in his limited action. The Cal defense is a problem again.
“You can’t beat anybody like that,” Wilcox said.
Yet the Cal offense wasn’t doing much, either. Another sack of Bowers brought the ball inside Cal’s 10, and another on the next play forced a fumble, which Oregon recovered.
The Ducks scored once again on an inside run, this time from Brooks-James, and at 38-17 with the fans clearing out, this game was over.
“We put our defense in a really tough spot, forcing us to be a ‘comeback’ team,” Bowers said. “They have a good team, their defense is fast and pretty physical. That was a good test for us, and we need to learn from this one.”
Both teams exchanged meaningless touchdowns to end the game 45-24. Cal had a nice moment or two, but the Bears are in for a long season if they can’t correct the fundamentals they supposedly rely on. You can’t win games allowing 331 yards on the ground and seven sacks. No. 6 Washington will likely teach them all about that next week.
“It’s really gonna be gut-check time for us,” Bowers said.