That dark night: Cal scares No. 9 Oregon but comes up short

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Al Sermano | KLC Photos/Courtesy

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No. 9 Oregon and the Ducks’ student section dressed for a funeral Friday night — presumably Cal’s funeral. Head coach Mario Cristobal’s team, dressed in all-black uniforms, and the blacked-out student section assumed that it would be an effortless affair. Instead, Ducks fans watched with bated breath as Cal came within 2 yards of escaping its fate, a 24-17 loss that brought the Bears’ record to 1-5.

Somewhat fittingly, on fourth-and-2 with two seconds left in the game, Oregon’s disguised blitz ruined the Bears’ last effort to punch the ball into the end zone and tie the game at 24. Former Cal and current Oregon defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, with some help from the Ducks’ defensive line, had kept the Bears’ offense off balance for most of the night before Cal’s final drive of the game. When it mattered most, the Oregon defense got to Chase Garbers quickly and forced a wayward throw from the fifth-year quarterback.

In the postgame press conference, when asked if he would have attempted a 2-point conversion had Cal found pay dirt on the final play, head coach Justin Wilcox snapped.

“What does it matter,” Wilcox said. “I hate to be short, sorry. I’m just saying, it doesn’t matter anymore. The game’s over. We didn’t get it done.”

He’s right — it’s a moot point. But his tone revealed an urgency and stress that was palpable on Cal’s final drive. It felt as if the Bears’ season hinged on the final play. It was a chance to change course completely and start their season anew.

But Cal simply could not finish. Holding penalties set the team back on multiple drives toward the end of the game. Then, on second-and-7 with one minute left in the fourth quarter, Garbers threw the ball well over the head of a wide-open Kekoa Crawford in the right corner of the end zone. Garbers’ heroic pitch pass to Crawford on fourth-and-4 at the Oregon 8-yard line kept Cal alive, but ultimately the Bears’ execution on passing plays was not good enough.

“It wasn’t a matter of not fighting,” Wilcox said. “We were very competitive, ran to the ball, gave great effort. We responded to some adverse situations.”

Oregon was simply marginally better than Cal in nearly all facets of the game. Oregon defensive end and projected first-round NFL draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux had to sit out the first half after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half of the Ducks’ upset loss to Stanford two weeks ago. Cal’s offense should have been aggressive in his absence but failed to capitalize on the opportunity, earning just 124 total yards in the first half.

While Cal sophomore running back Damien Moore and the running game looked reliable in the first quarter, Garbers and the passing game could not find a rhythm. Garbers had just 72 yards through the air on 10-15 passing in the first half and had trouble escaping pressure.

The Bears’ defense, on the other hand, exceeded expectations, limiting the Ducks to 10 points and forcing two fumbles in the first half. Cal’s second forced fumble in the final minute of the first half prevented Oregon from kicking a short field goal and going up 13-7 heading into the locker room. Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon’s scheme frustrated Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown Jr., whose wayward passes were punctuated by intermittent jeers from the Oregon fans. The boos that echoed through a packed Autzen Stadium came and went throughout the first half and then reached a crescendo after Cal forced a punt tied at 10 midway through the third quarter.

A QB dive on third-and-1 at the end of the third quarter kept Cal’s 80-yard drive alive and set up Garbers’ go-ahead touchdown pass to tight end Gavin Reinwald. Brown, who has struggled to pass the football all season, then channeled his inner Justin Herbert on the ensuing drive: His perfectly placed pass found a leaping Jaylon Redd in double coverage for his first touchdown of the game.

Four plays later, Oregon’s defense forced a punt, and the Ducks’ offense struck again. Brown used his legs for his one rushing touchdown of the game, knocking over the right pylon as he lept for the goal line and sent Eugene into a frenzy.

As mentioned previously, Cal’s ensuing wild 18-play drive to end the game ended in heartbreak for Wilcox’s side. Unfortunately, coming close to beating a top 10 team on the road doesn’t count for much in the world of college football, where all that matters are notches in the win column. But at the very least, the Bears did not go gently into that dark night. They finally proved that they are at least capable of fighting to the death, a win in and of itself for everyone involved with the Cal program.

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].