In three seasons at Memorial Stadium, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox had never managed to beat his alma mater. The Ducks had eluded the Bears, always just out of reach. After an 0-3 start and a season defined by mistakes — muffed punts, blocked kicks and critical turnovers have haunted the dreams of Memorial Stadium’s virtual faithful — Wilcox went back to his roots to secure a shock victory.
“It means a lot to the team; we haven’t had a win since last season,” said senior outside linebacker Cameron Goode, who turned in a star-caliber performance. “We finally got one.”
It was Cal’s defense that held the line and produced the team’s first win of 2020, a 21-17 upset over No. 23 Oregon that ensured Cal’s fifth consecutive season with a win over a ranked team.
The momentum swung around wildly throughout the first half as both teams had back-to-back touchdown drives. The Bears notched the only score of the second half — a game-winning touchdown catch from Nikko Remigio in the third quarter — but it was Cal’s defense that ultimately carried the day.
With just two minutes left in the game, Wilcox left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-short at the 25, rather than kicking the field goal. Quarterback Chase Garbers failed to connect with Makai Polk, and Oregon was given one final shot to win the game.
Wilcox knew his defense was up to the task, though, and it was the Bears who would have the final say. The Ducks took the ball 39 yards before quarterback Tyler Shough tossed a short pass to wide receiver Johnny Johnson III. Cal senior linebacker Kuony Deng wrapped his arms around Johnson and forced a fumble for the second time in the game. By the time Deng’s counterpart, freshman linebacker Muelu Iosefa, had scooped up the ball, the Cal sideline was already celebrating.
“There’s been so much stuff that’s been getting in the way. We understand that we have a really good football team,” said Deng, who forced two fumbles on the night. “Tough circumstances are going to come, but we can’t make excuses.”
It was a welcome sight for the Bears, who have suffered through less-than-savory late-game scenarios. An interception cost Cal against Oregon State, and a blocked extra point ensured a Big Game loss, but on Saturday it was the blue and gold who profited from a late-game turnover.
“It was frustrating to lose the last couple the way we did,” Wilcox said. “We all get frustrated when we make those critical errors, but the guys do a really good job of compartmentalizing it.”
That late defeat to Stanford was still fresh in many a mind, however, as Cal and Oregon traded opening punts. Fans held their breaths as the Bears fielded a kickoff, converted a fourth-and-goal and, finally, knocked through an extra point.
Improbably, the Bears avoided major errors and kept the football. The coin had flipped, and it was the Ducks who stumbled through the first half. Shough had difficulties hitting receivers downfield, and Oregon struggled to bring Cal running backs Damien Moore and Christopher Brown Jr. to the ground and gifted the Bears 60 yards after nine penalties throughout the game.
The blue and gold took advantage of those mistakes and built their biggest lead of the game. The Bears rode penalties to a mammoth 19-play, nearly 10-minute touchdown drive that put the Bears on top, 14-3. Garbers was outperforming Shough, who leads the Pac-12 in passing yards. Cal’s defense, led by Goode, was rolling. The outside linebacker was a massive presence throughout the game, becoming the first Bear to recover a fumble on defense in 2020 while racking up 3.5 tackles for a loss, including 1.5 sacks.
Oregon refused to let the first half die on such a note.
Shough and the Ducks began to pick holes in the blue and gold defense, generating a 39-yard touchdown pass to Johnson and a 67-yard toss to Travis Dye. Oregon used 10 plays over two drives to take a 17-14 lead while Cal stalled out.
It was the Ducks’ best play of the game, and for a moment, it seemed that the visitors would take the initiative. The Bears entered halftime trailing and exited it to the tune of two straight punts as Garbers went multiple drives without a completion.
The second half was bruising. Both teams dealt hard hits, and both offenses struggled. Star Cal cornerback Camryn Bynum tracked Shough down for a tackle for a loss, and Oregon’s quarterback went 1 for 7 in the third quarter. Defensive tackle Kristian Williams and outside linebacker Andrew Faoliu sacked Garbers.
Amid a second half that featured six punts, key players for both squads stepped up and cut through the mediocrity. Cal’s Marcel Dancy and Remigio struggled in the first half but were involved in every play on a 64-yard touchdown drive to give the Bears a 21-17 lead. Remigio was nothing but clutch for Cal, converting a critical fourth down with less than four minutes left in the game.
“I just had a slant. Chase knew, and the coaches knew, that Chase and I had gotten into a rhythm,” Remigio said of that fourth-down reception. “When you get into a rhythm, it’s easy to make plays like that.”
Oregon running back Dye finished the game with 71 rushing yards and 85 receiving yards, but his efforts were spoiled by a fourth-and-1 stop by the Bears at their own 21. That was emblematic of the Ducks’ second half, a frustrating period of play in which the visitors were shut out and accumulated a measly 132 yards.
“The defense played great,” Garbers said. “We always know what they’re capable of. They played tough; they played gritty.”
It was a win that has become typical during Wilcox’s tenure — the offense tallied just enough points to get the job done while the defense put its opponent on lock. Next week, Wilcox and his team will turn their attention to Washington State as they seek to turn their season around and, if they can win out, secure a bowl game. Tonight, however, Cal will relish its first win of 2020.
“We knew we had a shot heading into this game,” Garbers said. “To play at home, under the lights, on prime television against a ranked team, is awesome.”
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football. Contact him at [email protected].