2006 Cal vs Oregon: 5th Best Non Big Game of the Decade

It was a banner day for the University of California, Berkeley. via www.lbl.gov

[We are ranking the best non Big Games of the 2000s So far, we have #10 - Baylor, 2002, #9 - Washington, 2006, #8 - Michigan St. 2002, #7 - Texas A&M 2006, #6 - Virginia Tech 2003]

In my eyes, the 2006 game between Cal and Oregon at Memorial Stadium is second only, in ranking games of the Tedford era, to 2003 usc.  2003 usc is "probably" still to come on this list, and for good reason - it's the only time Tedford has beaten usc, it went to triple overtime, it was the first time Cal had beaten a top 3 opponent in 25 years (and we haven't since), and any time Pete Carroll lost at usc was a great time, because we finally got to see his true colors.  It's all fun and games when you're winning 80% of the time; the 20% of the time Carroll lost, however, that arrogant grin vanished, he somehow forgot to shake the opposing coach's hand, and he generally failed to give the opposing team any credit.  His team emulated him - witness Matt Leinart saying usc was a better team after losing to Texas in the 2006 National Title game.  Real class acts all around, but I digress.

Cal/Oregon 2006 did not feature usc losing.  It did not go to triple overtime.  The game wasn't even competitive, as Cal dominated from literally the opening kickoff.  Instead, it was the most electric atmosphere I have ever witnessed/participated in at Memorial Stadium.  It was the loudest I've ever heard Memorial.  I would contend that the game represents the high water mark of Tedford's tenure, to this point.  Most of all, this game demonstrated what an awesome force our University can be.

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Everything about this game was phenomenal - the athletic department's marketing team even turned in their best piece of the decade.  Watch it with the sound on.

Thanks to my old roommate at the Danger Stairs for uploading this.

I still get crazy goosebumps watching this video.

Cal had won four in a row, scoring 40+ points in each, heading into the game.  Their winning streak was overshadowed by two things: Cal's opening day, blowout loss at Tennessee, and Oregon's 4-0 record.  Although Cal played some of its best football of the decade during this stretch, they were under the radar after the humiliating loss at Tennessee and entered the game against Oregon as the underdog.

The importance of the game was not lost on Tedford.  Cal's national title hopes were essentially dead due to the nature of the Tennessee loss, and a defeat against a top Pac-10 team would virtually eliminate Cal from Rose Bowl contention.  If a season that had been so heavily hyped and anticipated was to be a success, Cal needed a victory against the ducks.  A few days before the game, Tedford put out a public service announcement to Cal fans, requesting a loud and energetic crowd to create a serious home field advantage.  The fact that we were playing Oregon, the team with debatably the loudest crowd in the Pac-10 (I say UW's is louder when they're winning games, but it's close) was not lost on us.  Tedford knew firsthand how much of an impact the crowd can have on a game, and he wanted everything he could get for this one.

Saturday ,October 7th, 2006 was a beautiful evening.  I remember the golden glow to the west, the sun still a few hours from setting.  I climbed up the stairs to the east rim from North Tunnel, looked down at the field, and saw more gold.  I immediately assumed that the garish gold uniforms belonged to oregon, but they were warming up on the wrong side of the field.  It took me a few seconds to see white and green uniforms on the visitor's side of the field, and then blue pants matched with the gold jerseys.  Cal had out-oregoned Oregon.  This was the first time Cal wore their lucky gold uniforms.

The other thing immediately apparent was the buzz in the crowd.  It's a bit cheap to describe it as "electric" in this space, as that isn't particularly, you know, descriptive, but that's the adjective that hit me then and has stuck with me since.  You could feel the energy.  I have not experienced an atmosphere like that at Memorial before or since; the only game that comes reasonably close was the home opener against Tennessee the following year, but even that wasn't on the same level.

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The stadium was packed, a real sell-out without the tarps.  The crowd arrived early, another thing Tedford had requested in his press release, which added a great deal to the atmosphere.  The teams finished warming up, Cal re-entered the field from north tunnel to a huge roar, and the captains started to walk towards the midfield for the coin toss.  Cal's captains for the game were Daymeion Hughes (cornerback), Zack Follett (linebacker) Craig Stevens (tight end), Nasty Nate Longshore (quarterback)...and George Smoot (physicist).  Four days before the game, Cal professor George Smoot became the 20th Berkeley faculty member to win a Nobel Prize.

The combination of a packed crowd, an electric atmosphere, the beautiful, golden weather and gorgeous view to the west, and a Nobel Laureate administering the coin flip and later, with Bobby B, leading the student section in cheers was so distinctly "Berkeley."  I would bet almost anything that our university is the only one over the last 50 years to feature a sellout crowd of 72,000 people, a blowout victory over the #11 football team in the country, and a faculty member winning a Nobel Prize in the span of one week.  We all know that Berkeley is the best public school in the country, and to me this seemed to be a particularly apt manifestation of that fact.  The only other school that might have a chance of accomplishing this feat is the furd...but when are they going to have going to sell more than 50,000 tickets?  That's right, never.

It's not the greatest time at Cal right now, with record budget deficits and seemingly imminent downsizing of the athletic department on the horizon, but this game was only 4 years ago.  Cal is uniquely situated to be a dominant force for good: educating the general populace, not just the elites, at an extremely high level, producing huge volumes of research for the public good, and still finding time to whip lesser, malevolent schools like UC Eugene in every sport except track and field.  This game was a great example of how Cal not only can be wildly successful at both athletics and academics, but how both areas compliment and enhance each other.

Speaking of the game - what an awesome game!  Here's a transcript of the first two plays.

California at 14:56 - Andrew Larson kickoff for 65 yards returned by Jeremiah Johnson for 23 yards to the Oregn 23.
(I'm almost positive Oregon was called for clipping on the return, but espn does not list it.  They must have been, since Dixon's pass on the next play was not - SPOILER ALERT -intercepted 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage.)
Oregon at 14:15 - Dennis Dixon pass intercepted by Brandon Hampton at the Oregon 15, returned for 8 yards to the Oregn 7.

Four plays later:
3rd and Goal at ORE 2Nate Longshore pass complete to Craig Stevens for 2 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Although forcing a turnover on your opponents first play and converting it into a touchdown seems pretty dominant, the play by play does not do it justice.  Dixon was heavily pressured on the interception and threw an awful pass off his back foot right at Brandon Hampton.  And on Longshore's touchdown pass, Cal sold misdirection to the left wonderfully while Stevens snuck out to the right - he had half of the end zone to himself.  Cal looked as dominant as they had in their previous four games, and Oregon looked shell-shocked.

I had forgotten this after the last four years, but Oregon kept it close for the next 10 minutes.  Cal was actually forced to punt leading only 7-3, giving Oregon a chance to take the lead.  The ducks failed to capitalize on their brief chance to get back into the game, punting it back to Cal.  On third and fifteen, Longshore hit the Hawk (HAAAAWWWK HAAAAWWWK) for 24 yards.  Then DeSean beat Jairus Byrd:

Ok, "beat" might be putting it a bit mildly.  Eviscerated?  I can hear Joe Starkey's call in my head: "DeSean Jackson literally removed Jarius Byrd's internal organs from his abdominal cavity!"

Jackson would score again before halftime:

It's tough to describe DeSean's speed without seeing it.  The last forty yards of the return make for a pretty nice example.  I think DeSean played pretty well against Oregon the following year, but I can't remember that game very well.  Let's search for some video:

Ahhh yes.  I wonder if there's an image to sum up this game?

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Ohh that's right.  By the way, what was Tedford yelling about after DeSean's punt return?  Watch at the 4:00 mark to find out:

Stay Classy, ducks.

TwistNHook is not much of a football analyst, but he is an expert in the Marshawn Sciences.  So while Twist probably can't tell you much about this game, I'm positive he remembers this play:

As awesome as this run was, Marshawn re-injured his ankle on the play and did not return to the game.  That opened the door for one of the two underrated and overlooked elements of the game.  Enter Justin Forsett.

 

Forsett ran for 163 yards on 27 carries, with the one touchdown.  He did most of his work after halftime, as Cal very successfully ran out the clock and kept the ball away from the ducks.  For his efforts, Marshawn crowned him with the Cal Hard Hat.

The other aspect of this game that gets overlooked is Cal defense's performance, which is somewhat understandable given DeSean's dominance.  The Cal defense was often designed to eliminate big plays and keep the game close, so the offense could win the game.  This was frequently effective - all the usc games where Cal held the trojans to a low point total but barely scored themselves come to mind.  In these cases, the defense did their job, while the offense failed to produce.

This game was different.  The Bear defense came out extremely aggressively, employing constant moving and shifting before the snap to confuse the Oregon offense.  Cal often lined up their linebackers on the line of scrimmage, creating a de facto 7 man defensive line and leaving the ducks to guess which of the 7 was coming on the blitz.  This strategy was extremely effective in shutting down Oregon's prolific rushing attack.  Cal held the ducks to only 70 yards on the ground.  Jonathan Stewart was limited to a minuscule 25 yards on 18 carries.  Stewart actually had a 10 yard run, so the Bears only gave up 15 yards to Stewart on his other 17 carries.  They swarmed the ducks, who had no answer.

Cal also intercepted Dixon three times and recovered a duck fumble.  The interception on the first play of the game was particularly important, setting the tone for what would be a dominating performance.  Cal's defense did everything right - they constantly pressured Dixon, completely shut down Oregon's rushing attack, and forced four turnovers.  This may have been Bob Gregory's best game as Cal's defensive coordinator.  Instead of playing a supporting role and letting the offense carry the load, Cal's defense took over the game.

Gregory often implemented effective game plans against the ducks, generally holding Oregon to well below their season scoring average and playing a central role in Cal's three straight victories over UO from 2006-2008.  Obviously, it was a completely different story in 2009, so maybe it's not too surprising that Tedford hired a new defensive coordinator this off-season.

It would have been nearly impossible to foresee, that night, the extreme disappointment of the coming 5 weeks.  A BCS/Rose Bowl bid seemed imminent, with 5 straight games of 40 points and a suddenly dominant defense.  Cal would win another three games in a row, but did not break 40 points in any of them and needed Marshawn's superhuman effort in Game 9 of our countdown, listed above, to beat UW.  The 8 game winning streak was not enough, as Cal lost the heart breaker at Arizona and then fell to usc in the fourth quarter.

I don't think Cal has returned to the peak it reached that night.  Perhaps our early season streak the following year brought us even higher, with victories over Tennessee and Oregon, but that team was not as dominant as the 2006 version.  It's pretty disheartening to remember that we were one atrocious, abysmal pass interference call, against Hughes in the Arizona game, away from reaching a BCS game...and then realize how much further away we are now.  An 8 game win streak and 5 straight games with 40 points seems like a long time ago.

This should not take away from what was truly an awesome game.  It featured:

  • The best highlight video of the decade
  • The best image of the decade

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  • The first appearance of the lucky gold uniforms
  • The loudest and most electric crowd at Memorial Stadium of the decade
  • Cal obliterating a top 15 opponent
  • One of Cal's most dominating defensive performances of the decade
  • About the best combination of athletic prowess, academic excellence, and university camaraderie that any institution can muster.

After the game, Tedford stood on the bench facing the east side of the stadium and gave thanks to the crowd.  I'm still thankful I was able to be in attendance.

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