It’s okay Duck fans, you can open your eyes now. The #1 Oregon Ducks took their high flying show into Berkley Saturday night and ran into a buzz saw against the California Golden Bears, but pulled out a tough victory 15-13. Oregon came into the game leading the nation in scoring (54.7 points per game) and total yardage (566 per game), but found tough sledding all night against a motivated and talented Cal defense. Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James was able to muster only 91 yards rushing on 29 carries, a season low for him. It did appear that James was favoring his left ankle, the same one that has given him trouble in previous games. In the post-game press conference James was on crutches and had a protective boot on his left foot, so Duck fans will find it tough to sleep for a while. Luckily for the Ducks their defense played by far their best game of the season to keep Oregon in the contest against Cal. It was not pretty by any standards, but Oregon did what they had to do and are still in line for a national championship bid.
The sturdy Golden Bears came into the game with the reputation of being a very talented but inconsistent group, having played undefeated at home but looking dysfunctional on the road. However, Cal did come into the contest with the best total defense in the conference and the Bears’ fan base willed their squad to another inspired performance at home. Oregon managed only 317 total yards on Saturday night, about 250 less than their season average. They held LaMichael James under 100 yards rushing for the first time this season and did not let him reach the endzone, another first on the year for James. The Ducks offense only scored one touchdown on the day, a 29 yard pass play from quarterback Darron Thomas to senior wide receiver Jeff Maehl on the heels on a turnover forced by the stout Oregon defense to start the 2nd half. Thomas struggled against Cal, only posting 155 yards passing while completing 15/29 and the touchdown to Maehl. The struggles for James and Thomas, 2 players that seemed virtually unstoppable most of the season, were due to a ferocious front 7 from the Cal defense. The standout player was linebacker Mike Mohamed, who may as well have had on a Duck jersey since he was in their backfield so often. The experienced offensive line for Oregon got whipped; there is no way around it. Duck fans are used to seeing their teams get off to slow starts, but sooner or later the opposing defense has worn down enough to allow Oregon to flex their muscle and dominate the 2nd half. Well it’s a little difficult to ware down the opposing defense if they’re on the sideline drinking Gatorade and trying to decide which hippy they want to shake out of a tree after the game. Oregon had so many stalled drives that Cal never appeared to stagger on defense. The Bears did come up with a huge play when defensive tackle Derrick Hill stripped Thomas of the ball then recovered the ball in the endzone that brought the Bears within 2 of the Ducks. Luckily for Oregon their defense bailed them out.
The under-rated and widely unappreciated Ducks defense saved the day. Oregon came into the game knowing that with backup quarterback Brock Mansion leading Cal’s offense the Bears would give the ball to running back Shane Vereen most of the game. On the opening drive for the Bears that’s exactly what happened, with Vereen marching all 49 yards to the endzone on a 6 play drive. But those 7 points would be all that the Oregon defense would yield the entire rest of the game. Vereen was kept in check from then on, only rushing for 63 yards after that point. Mansion was held to just 69 yards passing on 10/29. The Oregon defense came up with a big stop on the 2-point conversion attempt after the Hill recovery in the endzone that could have tied the game. While the big plays were absent again for the Ducks the only forced turnover they had resulted in the lone touchdown drive for Oregon’s offense. So to all of those Duck fans that like to bash on the defense because you have nothing better to do, shut your mouths because the defense is the only reason your team is still atop the polls right now.
The most important plays teams for both teams came on special teams. Cornerback/kick returner Cliff Harris returned his 4th punt for a touchdown this season in the second quarter. It is still a mystery to me why teams choose to mess with Harris; he has proven lethal every time he gets his hands on the ball. Maybe other teams enjoy watching how special he is just as much as Duck fans. So as far as Oregon is concerned, kick it to him every time, he’ll only score once every 3 or 4 times he has a chance to return a kick. However, in the field goal game both teams faltered. Early in the 4th quarter Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio made a 24-yard field goal to put Cal up 16-15. However, he took a few tiny steps prior to the snap which is illegal, so he tried it again from 29-yards and missed it wide right. I’m sure Cal fans will claim they could have beaten the mighty Ducks if he made that kick. They are wrong. They are wrong because Oregon kicker Rob Beard missed 2 field goals of his own, and when the Ducks took a knee at the end of the game they were well within field goal range if they felt the need to score. So yes, it would have put Cal up for then. But unfortunately for Cal fans there is no magical world where every kick is made, and if there was Cal would have lost by more. The scorebook does not give “kudos” for “almost making kicks”, just like there is no reward for “almost tackling” and “almost winning.”
The fact of the matter is the Cal played as well as they could have played with the team they had on the field and Oregon played their worst offensive game since Boise State back in September, 2009. Oregon still won, the Ducks are still going to be either 1 or 2 in the BCS, and the Bears are still struggling to make a bowl game. Cal now needs to find a win in one of their last 2 games to become bowl eligible.
I am going to stray a little away from football talk to say something that needs to be said about what I saw in Saturday’s game against Cal and that I have been seeing most of the past 2 seasons against Oregon. Whenever the Bears were on the field for more than 7 plays or so at a time and Oregon appeared to get a little momentum, Cal used a strategy that several have come to implement into their Oregon game plan: lie down and cry. Yes, most teams do that because of the score anyway. But when defenses have begun to get tired and don’t want to waste a time out, they simply have a big old lineman take a little snooze on the turf whining “owwy, my leg hurts…or maybe it’s my chest. I can’t decide which is more believable.” It was disgustingly apparent with Cal however, a school clearly not known for acting. They would have a lineman get up from the pile of the previous play, look to the sideline to receive a signal, then plop right down again while the “concerned” training staff runs out with water. Cramps maybe? Well if so then whoever designed whatever Cal had on the sideline to make cramps miraculously disappear after 3 plays deserves a Noble Prize, because it can save lives and apparently Cal’s defense. Those same “injured” players came trotting back onto the field after 2 or 3 plays. Things like this need to stop, especially if Cal and other teams won’t even bother hiring a coach that can teach these big buffoons how to realistically play dead; my dog can do it better than that. Am I saying that all of the injuries against Oregon were fake this year? No, absolutely not. But if a player is walking around like normal, looks to the sideline then suddenly cramps up 3 minutes into a drive, then comes back after drinking water and taking a hit of oxygen then it’s simply not fair to penalize Oregon by making them wait around so some guy can go rub some ointment on his meaty hamstring. But I digress.
The Ducks are now 2 wins away from a national championship game birth, with their next test coming the night after Thanksgiving when the Arizona Wildcats come to Autzen Stadium. Arizona has been ranked every week of this season, but after suffering losses to Stanford and USC the previous 2 weeks that may not be the case when they face the Ducks after turkey day. Oregon will have a bye week to hopefully get LaMichael James healthy and to prepare for a tough Arizona defense that was 10th in the nation in rushing defense coming into today.
About the Author
Written by Rob Parness
My name is Robbie Parness and I am a student at the University of Oregon. I'm a California native that loves to play, watch and talk about all kinds of sports. I would love to become a sports writer someday or work in sports in any capacity.