Oregon fans have wondered the past several years if there are ever any adjustments made to both play, and tactics, in the second half of Duck football games. In Saturday's contest with the tenacious California Bears, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and his staff straightened out a ship that was headed for the rocks and instead steered it to a hard-earned 17-7 victory.
The Ducks were down 7-0 coming out of the dressing room and held the Bears to 8 yards on 12 plays, forcing Cal to punt after four straight three-and-outs in the third quarter. Oregon went three-and-out its first possession of the third quarter and then proceeded to get going, piling up 119 yards of offense while the Bears languished.
Quarterback Justin Herbert led a 72-yard drive that culminated in freshman kicker Camden Lewis’ first field goal to cut the lead to four on the Ducks' second possession. After two more three-and-outs, Herbert hit Jacob Breeland for 30 yards on second-and-long and, finally, after three scoreless Duck trips to the red zone, Cyrus Habibi-Likio tumbled into the end zone for the Ducks’ first touchdown, and what ultimately were the winning points.
The final stats showed the Duck defense holding Cal’s strong running attack to a miserly 66 yards on 30 carries — Oregon’s front seven was stout against the run but poor in containing on pass rushes. There were numerous occasions that the rusher responsible for containing the quarterback went too deep past the quarterback while battling the pass blocker, which opened up a huge lane for backup quarterback Devon Modster to step up and scramble for 59 key yards. In the end, it appeared Oregon’s front seven physically wore down the offensive line for Cal.
Herbert was 20-of-33 passing with his first interception and was able to throw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to stretch his nation-leading streak of consecutive games with scoring throws to 33. He came under heavy pressure at times and it seemed that on several occasions he did not set his feet before throwing — he missed open receivers a couple of times and threw late across the middle twice; one was intercepted in the first quarter and the other put the life of his leaping receiver in jeopardy going after a high inaccurate pass in the second quarter.
The first half was in a word, ugly. The Ducks were shut out, turned the ball over three times on Herbert’s first interception of the year, had two fumbles by Travis Dye and took four penalties. The interception came at Cal’s 6-yard line and one fumble was on the Bears' 9-yard stripe.
There was disorganization on the sidelines. Oregon was penalized for illegal substitution and had to use all three timeouts to try to sort out mental problems between the coaching staff and players on the field.
There were other penalties that hurt. A 15-yard penalty on Johnny Johnson III moved the Ducks back from a second-and-4 at the Cal 10-yard line to a second-and-19 at the 25-yard line. Herbert’s interception immediately followed that loss of poise — Johnson was lucky to not be ejected as he punched a defensive back in the face after the whistle.
Down 7-0, Dye’s fumble ended a promising drive at the Cal 9-yard line shortly after a leg injury to CJ Verdell. The other fumble came at the Bears’ 38-yard line, the third turnover, all on the California side of the 50.
Topping off a miserable half, Lewis missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt after Herbert slightly overthrew Johnson in the end zone on a third-down attempt that might have been better off being a shorter, higher percentage pass for a first down (or at least to make the kick a bit shorter on fourth down).
Lewis, at this point, was 0-3 on the season, although he made several 40-plus yarders in practice during the bye week. Evidently, making kicks in practice isn’t quite the same as in a game. On the plus side, he’s now got a streak of successful kicks going.
For the game, the Ducks were tough on third-down defense (6-of-17), but the offense was only 5-of-13, well under Cristobal’s goal of 50 percent. In a game that was like old-time rock ‘em, sock ‘em football, points and yards were hard to get. Cal’s total offense was 256 yards and the Ducks got 404.
Oregon’s 190 yards rushing for a 4.75 average was good against a strong Cal defense and the Bears’ tackling machine Evan Weaver was held to only six tackles, about 14 less than his usual. One way or another, that’s good blocking and good game planning by the coaching staff to be able to minimize such a dominating defender.
The Duck defense was able to sack Modster four times but got to him, hard, several more times in the second half. Although Herbert came under major pressure too, the Bears scored only one sack. That is a tribute to the offensive line as the Bears brought five or more rushers in a blitz many times in the game. Oregon’s offensive line picked up pass-rush stunts much better than the game before against Stanford.
Speaking of creativity, there were a few examples by Oregon that may have shocked some of the crowd who have been complaining of conservative, predictable play calling. The run game was OK, but it really got going when Herbert was unleashed. There were two reverses called, one that was blown up by a blitz and another went nowhere. Nevertheless, opponents will have to consider those plays when making their defensive game plans for the Ducks in the future.
The best play was a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jaylon Redd on a second-and-goal when everyone simply knows Cristobal won’t pass. Redd went in motion left to right, stopped and turned before crossing Herbert’s position and then swung back to his left, catching the ball with a pulling tight end in protection. It was a play that totally fooled the Bears, who were filling the inside gaps of the anticipated line plunge in the A gap and nowhere near Redd.
It absolutely delighted all those skeptics who have complained the past four games about play calling and will perhaps cause opposing defenses to not necessarily sell out on the inside run. It was a great example of how a “trick” play can make other elements of the running game work better.
This week, the Ducks will work on discipline in avoiding “avoidable” penalties such as unnecessary roughness, pass rush contain and ball security to prepare for a dangerous Colorado team that was upset by an improving Arizona team. Perhaps the Buffaloes took the Wildcats for granted at home, something Cristobal will point out to his home team is a cardinal sin. As much as it avoidable, the Ducks will have to play better to defeat Colorado — everyone knows it, especially Cristobal. One would hope his Ducks take that to heart when they prepare this week.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.