There was a moment in Cal football’s deflating 42-24 loss to No. 19 Oregon when the No. 24 Bears looked like the ferocious underdogs from last season, and on their way to an extended stay in the AP top 25. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon McIlwain had turned on the jets to run right past Ducks defenders for Cal to take a 10-7 lead, with everything going the Bears’ way. That edge turned out to be no match for Oregon’s frankly superior talent, and the Bears ended up limping the rest of the way to an 0-1 conference start.
“At the end of the day, we know we can compete with anybody, we know we’re better than last year,” said redshirt senior linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. “This one stings.”
After orchestrating a seven-and-a-half minute drive for a 25-yard field goal on Cal’s first possession, redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers threw up a soaring go-get-it deep ball on the first play of the second drive, letting his receiver go mano a mano with a safety. In most situations, that’s to the offense’s advantage.
When the safety has two inches and almost 30 pounds on the receiver, as the Ducks Ugochukwu Amadi does on slight receiver Jeremiah Hawkins, not so much. Amadi came down with the ball, and Garbers’ 1-in-3 start begot McIlwain taking the majority of the snaps for the rest of the half. It proved to hardly matter — Amadi was a problem all night for both quarterbacks, later taking a pick six home on a poor toss from McIlwain.
Bringing extra pass rushers was earning dividends for the Bears, with Kunaszyk effectively pressuring Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert and disrupting the offense. But teams simply can’t blitz every down, and the four-man rush was entirely ineffective, leaving Herbert far too much time to carve up the secondary. He had all day to throw over Cal linebacker Alex Funches for a 30-yard touchdown on the Ducks’ first series of the game. Funches would prove to be just one of a few victims.
“It feels like you got kicked in the gut — it sucks,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “You’ve just got to come back Monday morning ready to work. … It hurts, and it should hurt.”
Redshirt sophomore cornerback Camryn Bynum, who looked like a star in the making throughout much of the early season, ended up playing the goat in the second quarter when he pressed Oregon wide receiver Dillon Mitchell in one-on-one coverage and was beaten badly for a 36-yard touchdown pass. All in all, Herbert would end up with a QB rating of 188.6, simply flattening a much-celebrated Cal secondary.
“I think Justin Herbert throws the ball as well as any QB I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching. … Against a guy like that, a team like that, you’ve got to get off the field on third down. … He’s an elite talent,” Wilcox said.
The Ducks would ultimately score 28 unanswered points to take a 35-10 lead at one point in the second half.
McIlwain had another chance at the end of the first half to swing things Cal’s way. After redshirt sophomore wide receiver Vic Wharton III earned 35 yards on a punt return to give the Bears a chance to score before time ran out, McIlwain looked to be finding his way through the Oregon linebackers, before losing the football for the second time in the game.
The damage was contained the first time, as he recovered the ball on his own. The second was a flat-out disaster, as Oregon’s La’Mar Winston Jr. went on to bring it home for a 61-yard touchdown return.
“Five turnovers is never acceptable, so we need to do a better job, and I need to do a better job,” McIlwain said.
Ducks running back CJ Verdell broke things open to begin the second half, returning the initial handoff to the 1-yard line, with fellow halfback Cyrus Habibi-Likio punching the ball in moments later.
The Bears had another chance to pull close in the third quarter after Kunaszyk made an excellent play to punch the ball loose from Oregon running back Travis Dye, but Garbers threw the opportunity away on a throw into triple coverage that was picked off with ease in the end zone.
Cal’s passing game was stymied on the road against Oregon last year, and that would prove to be the case again at California Memorial Stadium. The first half saw the Bears’ quarterbacks combine for 4 of 13 and just 43 yards through the air. With some help in garbage time, they’d end up at 15-30 and 172 yards, but unless offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin can get something going consistently in that area, the Bears will continue to look limp against teams with real defensive talent. McIlwain produced ground, becoming Cal’s first quarterback to go for 100 rush yards in 60 years (Joe Kapp was the first, in 1958), but with two fumbles and a sub-50 percent completion rate, it frankly didn’t count for much.
Patrick Laird had a decent game, managing to average a respectable 92 yards against what has been one of the best rush defenses in the nation. He added his second rushing score of the season, but he had no impact in the receiving game, meaning he only got to be so relevant in a game in which the Bears were down early.
Cal still has home games against the other top teams in the Pac-12 North, but this game will leave fans with a sour taste in their mouths, and isn’t likely to inspire confidence in those later contests. If Wilcox is to avoid missing out on a bowl after a 3-0 start — just like last year — there are clearly still quite a few kinks to work out.