BERKELEY, Calif. — Time was running down in the second quarter Saturday night, and California had the ball at Oregon's 21, facing third-and-7 and trying to cut into the Ducks' 21-10 lead.
Moments later, defensive end Drayton Carlberg sacked Cal quarterback Brandon McIlwain, the ball popped loose and linebacker La'Mar Winston scooped it up and ran 61 yards for a touchdown with 18 seconds left in the half.
Just like that, the 19th-ranked Ducks had a 28-10 lead and some much-needed cushion in a 42-24 victory against No. 24 Cal at Memorial Stadium.
"I was like, 'Don't get caught, don't get caught,'" Oregon safety Ugochukwu Amadi said. "'I know you got some wheels on you. Use them.'"
Winston's fumble return capped a stellar second quarter for the Ducks defense, marred by only one big miscue. Cal drove for a touchdown early in the second quarter, thanks in large part to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Oregon cornerback Haki Woods after he broke up a third-down pass.
After that, Oregon's defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs, then scored on Winston's return.
The Ducks had four interceptions overall, two by Amadi, including a pick-six with 3:02 left to play, and two by safety Jevon Holland.
"When you're playing away games, it's important to get takeaways to build momentum because you don't have fans to cheer you on," Amadi said. "You got to bring your own juice, your own energy."
Oregon's defense spent much of the night chasing the speedy McIlwain, a transfer from South Carolina. He rushed for 123 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries. McIlwain became the first Cal quarterback to run for 100 yards in a game since Joe Kapp ran for 130 yards against Oregon in a 23-6 victory on Oct. 25, 1958 at Memorial Stadium.
"I've seen him before," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. "I know exactly what he's about. He hit us on some big runs. The touchdown I believe, the early quarterback draw, and then they called it again. They probably ran the ball a little better than most teams have against us, but there's a give and a take as well. Overall the defense played a real strong game. When they were trying to stretch the field horizontally and vertically, we played real good coverage."
The Ducks had a crucial goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter. On third-and-goal from the 5, McIlwain completed a short pass to wide receiver Kanawai Noa, but Amadi dropped him at the 1. Then on fourth down, linebacker Troy Dye tackled McIlwain in the backfield.
"It was super big-time," Dye said. "You always want to win the goal-line stand because that's where you really can test your manhood."
Cristobal praised his defense for coming up with big play after big play at crucial times of the game.
"All these games are going to come down to being able to play as a team, and in real critical moments the defense stood up and did a great job. There's no bigger momentum swing than a pick six. Anything of that nature, essentially it's a 14-point swing, especially when they're marching.
"Can't say enough about Ugo, can't say enough those guys continuing to fight, even when our backs were against the wall, the fourth-down stop. Those things, they really helped change the ball game, and they did a great job tonight."