Defensive takeaways not enough to propel Cal to upset over No. 13 Oregon

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The Bears’ defense played to win against the No. 13 Oregon Ducks, and to be quite honest, they probably deserved to. But football is a team sport, and when the offense had chances to follow suit, they fell short time and time again.

Through the first third of Cal’s season, one of the main things separating last year’s dominant defense from this year’s edition has been creating takeaways. Coming into Saturday night, Cal had forced only six turnovers, which was 62nd in the nation. Oregon’s offense, on the other hand, was third in the nation in turnovers lost, only fumbling twice on the season.

But there exists what is known as the law of large numbers, which states that over time all statistics will eventually veer back toward the mean. The Bears’ defense was on a mission to expedite that process, and they did their job exceedingly well to start the game, forcing turnovers on all of Oregon’s first three possessions.

Coming into the evening, the Ducks’ quarterback Justin Herbert led the nation by having gone 174 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. Less than six minutes into the game, though, the streak was snapped in front of a rowdy stadium flooded with shades of green. Cal safety Ashtyn Davis jumped in front of a pass intended for Oregon receiver Jaylon Redd, bringing a halt to a drive that saw the Ducks run the ball with ease through the Bears’ defense.

“We needed someone to make a play and it happened to be on that drive,” Davis said. “We have to take the ball away as much as possible. That was our focus coming into this.”

After going three-and-out on the opening drive of the game, Cal’s offense came out to capitalize on Davis’ first interception of the season, and they did just that. Quarterback Devon Modster, who was making his first start in place of the injured Chase Garbers, lobbed up a rainbow to receiver Jordan Duncan on third-and-10, who came down with the contested catch to move the ball into Ducks territory.

Three plays later, Modster rolled out of the pocket and hit running back Christopher Brown Jr. with a 22-yard dart to open up the scoring, breaking an Oregon streak of 41 consecutive first-half drives without allowing a touchdown. Starting center Michael Saffell went down with a leg injury on the play before, but the line held up enough to let Modster maneuver outside the pocket and find his target to put the Bears up 7-0.

Despite the Ducks driving downfield behind their dynamic run game on the next drive, the Bears continued their ball-hawking when Oregon running back Travis Dye lost possession while stumbling forward, allowing Cal linebacker Kuony Deng to fall on the pigskin. Just over two minutes later, after a Bears three-and-out, the Autzen Stadium crowd was again left stunned as they watched Cal safety Trey Turner III knock the ball out of the hands of Dye, who once again gave possession back to the blue and gold.

“Defensively, our guys played extremely hard. They had a couple critical plays in there,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “They battled their asses off.”

Between all the defensive madness of the first half, each team saw its field goal kicker miss an attempt — Cal’s Greg Thomas failed on a 32-yarder, which was his first miss since the season opener against UC Davis.

The start of the second half was more of the same, with the only scoring of the first six combined possessions being a 28-yard field goal by Oregon kicker Camden Lewis. With just under two minutes remaining in the quarter, though, Herbert completed a 30-yard pass to tight end Jacob Breeland, setting up an easy goal-line touchdown run for running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio to put the Ducks up 10-7.

Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s game plan was completely shut down for most of the night, with the Bears going three-and-out on an inexcusable seven out of 13 drives. Modster was able to extend plays with his feet and showed flashes of big-play potential, but his accuracy was wildly inconsistent. It was clear that his timing with receivers was off on multiple occasions, but that was somewhat expected with the quarterback having taken his first team reps for just a single week of practice.

By the time the second half rolled around, the Bears only had two of their five first-string offensive linemen still healthy, as tackle Valentino Daltoso eventually left the game in addition to Saffell.

“It’s unfortunate — I thought they competed really hard,” said Wilcox of the offensive line’s injuries. “We made some mistakes and it was tough sledding in the run game, but they just got to keep grinding. Their effort and toughness showed.”

While Oregon’s defense was among the best that the Bears will face this season, the offense must get in sync quickly to avoid another losing skid that has characterized the past couple of seasons. Midway through the final quarter, it was clear that Cal’s defensive players were tiring from their lengthy time on the field, and the Ducks were able to take advantage after a misdirection allowed Redd to jog into the end zone untouched for a 1-yard touchdown reception to put Oregon up by 10.

“We gave them some short fields. It’s tough to stop them that many times,” Wilcox said. “We just didn’t quite make enough plays.”

Thomas all but ended Cal’s hopes of a comeback after missing another field goal with about three minutes remaining, which would have brought the Bears within one score.

Although the offense was clearly lacking chemistry, Modster should develop that with more practice time, and the offensive line will aim to gel with whatever the new combination of starters ends up being. Defensively, Cal played one of its best games of the season, but with the Bears sitting at 1-2 in conference play, they need to get both sides clicking if they wish to remain a contender in the Pac-12 North.

“Ultimately, we just have to keep our head high and move onto the next one,” said offensive lineman Matthew Cindric. “There’s some good things to build off of.”

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].