Picking themselves off the deck, Oregon’s defense made an impressive rebound from their disappointing collapse the week before against Stanford in scoring two touchdowns, hauling in four interceptions, recovering a fumble and making a goal line stand, all in pivotal situations of a 42-24 victory at California on Saturday night.
There were a lot of questions about the Duck secondary going into the game, most of them about the inability to adequately cover receivers. It was clear there were changes made, both in alignment and tactics that put defensive backs in positions where they could be competitive. The corners began to take an inside alignment on wide receivers and also took slightly bigger cushions that enabled them to see the quarterback better and allow them room to react to receivers’ speed.
Last season, the defense struggled in allowing opposing teams to score on the last possession of the first half and first possession of the second half, but this game showed the dramatic improvement coordinator Jim Leavitt’s defense has made this season.
The defense scored on the last possession of the first half and the offense scored on its first possession of the second half, crucial points that put the California offense off balance and sparked the enthusiasm of the Ducks and a large contingent of fans who made the trip to the Berkeley.
The Ducks incurred seven penalties, two of which were deliberate delay of game penalties to give the punt team more room to work with. To coach Mario Cristobal’s ire, there were several foolish penalties, the worst one on defensive back Haki Woods for taunting a Cal receiver out of bounds in front of Cal’s bench on a play that would have been a three-and-out for Oregon.
Instead, the grateful Bears were able to continue a 90-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. Such ego-oriented penalties next week against Washington will result in another thrashing by the Huskies. Duck fans still are smarting from the 70-21 whipping the Huskies put on an Oregon team that quit in the second half of that game.
The Duck offense also had some misfires against Cal. After Dillon Mitchell dropped a third-down pass, kicker Adam Stack missed a 43-yard field goal; for him a makeable distance. Freshman running back Travis Dye rushed for 115 yards, but like CJ Verdell against Stanford, let the ball come away from his body and fumbled, giving Cal a big boost at the time.
It's remarkable that Cristobal maintains confidence in his youthful running backs. He has much more patience with his young players, but at the same time persists in pushing them and giving them more responsibility. You can see that this sort of thing enhances Cristobal’s culture and the trust he’s gained from his players.
Speaking of trust, the performance of the Ducks and the resulting win were great testaments to everything Cristobal had told the press the week before the game. He said his players had put the Stanford loss on the shelf and were mentally ready to turn things around. His players did exactly that, and Duck fans can feel trust growing with their new head coach, who speaks frankly and openly about his team.
Oregon’s defensive front, missing the injured Austin Faoliu, did not have a great day defending the run. After stifling Stanford, they were gashed for 241 yards, many of those on plays right at the middle of the defense. The defense gave up two 90-yard touchdown drives, one of which was going to be a three-and-out and instead went on to gain a touchdown. Unlike the Cardinal defeat where the Ducks gave up a limited number of yards and made no big plays, this game they gave up a lot of yards but made many big plays. Guess which way is better.
Verdell lost a fumble against Stanford at a crucial time, extending the ball in an effort to get a first down. On his 74-yard run against the Bears to open the second hafl , you could see he was holding the ball high and tight instead of letting it swing away from his body, evidence that he learned a valuable, but painful lesson the week before.
Oregon’s kickoff team covered the first three kickoffs in excellent fashion. Those following were progressively worse as the Cal blockers had a good idea of who was covering where and the Ducks seemed to get worn down. Allowing the opponent to get beyond the 30-yard line is field position the Ducks can’t afford to put on their defense, so the distance of Oregon kickoffs needs to get better.
The punt team was embarrassed when the Ducks punted to Cal and the return man took a casual way to catch the ball and then sprinted past several Ducks who were in perfect position, to watch, as the Bear raced for 35 yards on the return.
Oregon coaches will hit the recruiting trail during the bye week; it will be a lot easier coming off the Cal victory, which was truly inspiring for all concerned. On their wish list should be cornerbacks 6-foot-2 and taller and tall, athletic defensive players at all the other positions. It seems like the short, squatty player who was such a favorite in the past is getting squeezed out in the present.
No matter how the game turns out, Oregon fans will not be disappointed with their effort or enthusiasm, unlike the past two years when it was difficult to see those qualities in action. Although the Ducks are making their share of mistakes, they still have shown improvement from game to game, a tribute to the players and the coaching staff.