Heading into week six, only three starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12 had yet to throw an interception.
One was Utah veteran Tyler Huntley. Another was Oregon State’s Jake Luton, Cal football’s competition for this weekend’s Homecoming contest. The last one attends school 50 miles south of Oregon State in Eugene, where Oregon’s Justin Herbert entered a showdown against the Bears with a Football Bowl Subdivision-high of 174 consecutive throws without a giveaway.
On his third pass attempt against Cal, that changed.
After the Ducks’ defense forced a quick three-and-out from Devon Modster and the offense, Oregon pounded Cal’s front seven with a healthy mix of C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye, the team’s two tailbacks, who led the Ducks inside Cal’s 20-yard line.
A personal foul penalty put Oregon outside of the redzone, forcing Herbert and the offense to throw the rock. Thus emerged the tone-setting play that defined the first half.
Oregon QB Justin Herbert just threw his first interception since November 2018. He had thrown 176 straight passes without being intercepted. pic.twitter.com/UG7tCmH89L
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) October 6, 2019
Second and 19 from the Cal 25. The Ducks line up with two receivers to Herbert’s left on the weak side of the field, and another split out with one-on-one coverage to his right. Verdell is offset to Herbert’s right side, but his primary responsibility on this play is blocking star linebacker Kuony Deng, who charges full throttle for Herbert through the A-gap.
With a low center of gravity, Verdell does his job — picking up the blitz, and sending Deng to the ground just a couple seconds after the snap. With Evan Weaver acting as a spy inside the 20-yard line, Herbert has ample time in the pocket. He takes a five-step drop to the Cal 35-yard line, surveying the field for an open receiver.
Herbert’s choice on this play turns out to be slot receiver Jaylon Redd, one of the two wideouts who was originally lined up on his left. The other is Johnny Johnson III, who is matched up with Cal cornerback Camryn Bynum at the top of the screen and runs a curl route along the sideline.
Redd attempts a double move on Ashtyn Davis, Cal’s free safety in zone coverage. With Johnson and Bynum occupying the sideline, Redd breaks inside, toward the middle of the field — where Davis has help from strong safety Jaylinn Hawkins over the top.
Oregon tight end Jacob Breeland, Herbert’s favorite target throughout the first half of the season, enters the fray just as Herbert’s fastball arrives. Breeland’s route, defended by Cal cornerback Josh Drayden, is a loose semicircle, looping back toward the left hashmark, which he reaches as Herbert’s throw zips by.
While Hawkins is about two strides short of the play, Davis makes an incredible break on the ball, beating Redd to the spot at about the seven-yard line. Plenty of defenders are in the vicinity of the play, and Hawkins lays a soft block to Redd as Davis takes off the other way in stride.
Herbert’s attempt to squeeze the pass over Weaver’s head and between Cal’s two safeties fails, as Davis records his first interception since Nov. 24, 2018 against Colorado. The turnover is just Cal’s third interception of the 2019 campaign, but ends up being the first of three Oregon turnovers in the first half.
While the Bears enter the break in Eugene leading 7-0, Herbert strikes back in the second half, leading Oregon to a 17-7 win and sending Cal to a second straight defeat. Still, the Bears’ defense extends a 13-game streak of surrendering 24 points or less to opposing teams.
As Oregon State arrives at UC Berkeley this weekend, Davis and the Cal defense are poised to continue their impressive run against a Beavers offense that scored just seven points against Utah last weekend.