Everyone was wondering how Oregon would respond mentally after its shocking defeat to Stanford last week, but at halftime in Berkeley, Calif., it looked like coach Mario Cristobal had set the players' minds right as they rang up a 28-10 lead over California.
Although the game got a bit shaky in the second half, the Ducks prevailed 42-24, a major accomplishment for a team hurting all week from last Saturday’s disappointment.
Cal went down the field on the first possession by converting third-down attempts and mixing up their offensive play calls nicely between run and pass, utilizing two different quarterbacks. The Duck defense tightened and forced a field goal, and quarterback Justin Herbert then looked at ease in leading a 74-yard touchdown drive. The Ducks would remain in the lead for the rest of the game.
Herbert was hot from the start and at halftime was 10-for-14 passing for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He was forced to scramble several times as the Ducks’ pass protection was less than what it needs to be, but he converted several third downs with his legs.
Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell continued his strong performance catching the ball and getting open against press coverage. He showed remarkable quickness off the ball and Cal’s cornerbacks could not stay with him. For the game, Mitchell caught seven balls for 105 yards and a touchdown; but he did drop a third-down throw in the third quarter and ran a couple of routes not deep enough for first downs.
Speaking of cornerbacks, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt adjusted the alignment of his cornerbacks and the pass coverage improvement over the past two weeks was dramatic. Ugo Amadi intercepted two passes, one for a touchdown and several other Duck defenders, including the corners, were in tight coverage and broke up several passes over the course of the game. Frosh safety Jevon Holland also had two interceptions as he continues to demonstrate that he has a nose for the ball.
The problem for the defense was stopping the Bears' run offense that alternated between quarterbacks and running back Patrick Laird. Coming into this game, Oregon’s defense allowed an average of 77 yards per game. The Bears notched 241 yards while the Ducks struggled to stop their power runners on 91-yard and 97-yard touchdown drives.
The pass rush was not overwhelming, but defensive end Drayton Carlberg beat a tackle’s block and caused the Bears’ quarterback to fumble that was scooped up and run in for a score by La’Mar Winston Jr. — just as Stanford did to the Ducks in their fatal loss last weekend. Amadi’s score came at a pivotal point in the game as Cal had cut the Ducks' lead to 35-24 and every Oregon fan started to get indigestion that was left over from the Stanford debacle.
Pass coverage was much improved. The cornerbacks' alignment was modified and they actually lined up on an inside shade to contest the receiver’s easy release they had enjoyed the past two games. In more than a coincidence, there were many more passes that were contested and several broken up — it was as if the defensive coaches took the blinders off their players and put them in a position to be successful. The result was five takeaways by a hungry defense.
As the touchdowns mounted, Oregon kickoffs were shorter and Cal began to get much better field position. It will be important to hit more of those into the end zone in the games ahead. The Ducks limited returns to around the 20-yard line after the first three scores, but the kicker must have been getting tired as his kicks began to come down closer to the 15- to 20-yard lines, allowing a sizeable return that set the Bears up in good field position.
One thing that showed up that hadn’t before was that the Ducks, on several occasions, lost contain on a scrambling quarterback dropping to pass. Many times pass rushers were going for a tackle and instead needed to get their hands up to disrupt the quarterback’s passing lanes. It takes discipline to give up a sack to keep the quarterback from throwing, but more of that must be done to help out the secondary.
Running back CJ Verdell made a 74-yard run to set up a touchdown on the first play of the second half. He bulled his way into the secondary and then switched into his passing gear, running past two tacklers, and high stepping over another diving tackler as if he was a high hurdler. Verdell not only has raw power, but he’s showing that he is athletic and fast, a complete running back that is also an excellent receiver. He rushed for 106 yards in this game.
Travis Dye, a hard-nosed freshman, had 20 carries for 115 yards and he continues to amaze those who feel he is too small to be a prime-time running back. Growing up competing with his brother, Troy must have helped Travis develop the toughness that he brings to his game.
One thing to work on in preparing for the Washington Huskies in two weeks (Oregon has a bye next week) would be to avoid foolish, ego-oriented penalties. Haki Woods was slapped with an unsportsmanlike penalty after an incomplete pass hit the ground on the Bear side of the field. It wiped out a three-and-out and allowed the Bears to finish off a touchdown drive. Those type of penalties can cost you a game down the road.
Cristobal will be irritated with his squad in the penalty department as the defense racked up four major penalties and the offense took a holding penalty. It was easy to see that every penalty put a lot of pressure on the defense, that at times, in the second half, was staggering.
He also will be irritated that his punt coverage team went to sleep and watched dumbfounded as Cal’s returner caught the ball without making a fair catch signal and almost broke free for a touchdown. This probably happened because so many returners eschew the return and make a fair catch, so the cover team anticipates a fair catch, or maybe think they saw a fair catch signal. But in this case, the punt team was humiliated by a play you might see in a Pop Warner game.
Herbert was 16-for-22 passing in the game, but that would include two drops on balls that should have been caught and ended up stopping offensive drives. The defense gave up too many yards and missed tackles they were making in previous games.
Cristobal has instilled power, physical football at Oregon; we all saw it last week against one of the top teams in the Pac-12. What the Ducks showed in their victory over the Bears was mental toughness as Cristobal said all week his team would show, that they had put the bitter loss on the shelf.
To actually do that is amazing; a tribute to the Oregon coaching staff and this actually helps Cristobal build trust with his team and, importantly, Duck fans. Everyone found that what Cristobal says is not a bunch of spin, but the real deal.
The road ahead is going to get a lot more difficult, but the Duck football team continues to get stronger.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.