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Brave effort not enough in competitive loss to Ducks

Cal's offense and defense both made plays to keep things close, but special teams haunt the Bears in a 59-41 loss to Oregon.

Brian Bahr

Last night our Bears lost by 18 points and allowed 59 points, and the consensus reaction from Cal fans seems to be that the Bears turned in a mostly strong performance. How can that be?

Well, consider that Cal scored 10 more points than any other team has against Oregon so far this year. Consider that Cal nearly kept pace with Oregon in terms of total yards. Consider that Cal became the first team to intercept Marcus Mariota this year. Consider that multiple 50/50 referee calls all went in Oregon's favor. Consider that Cal did it without Trevor Davis and Brennan Scarlett, and with a banged up Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler, amongst a variety of other injuries.

Mostly, consider that in the last three years, the Bears had lost to Oregon by scores of 34, 42, and 28.

This is still a football team with many (sometimes painfully obvious) flaws. But it's a football team that should expect to be reasonably competitive against anybody. Even a team that will very possibly finish the year in the college football playoff. The year over year progress is so obvious that even the most hardened cynics would have to acknowledge the clear progress.

Cal started the game quickly, with touchdowns on their first two drives. Even better, the Bears raced down the field behind a strong rushing attack that heavily featured true freshmen Luke Rubenzer and Vic Enwere. Rubenzer got the first touchdown on a quick run up the gut, while Enwere showed impressive balanced on a 19 yard scamper.

Unfortunately, Oregon started out just as hot, and the score was 14-14 halfway through the quarter. The game slowed down a bit as both defenses got stops. The 2nd quarter turned out to be the critical quarter, as a few key plays swung the game mostly in Oregon's favor. Some were very controversial:

  • Cal, 1st and 25 from the Cal 45: Jared Goff drops back to pass and is hit as he starts his throwing motion. The refs rule the play a fumble on what could have been an incomplete pass. Oregon kicks a field goal 7 plays later.
  • Cal 4th and 1 from the Cal 48: Vic Enwere gets the handoff and runs into immediate contact before lunging forward with the ball late. The ball is spotted inches short, and it's one of those plays where there's a range where the ball reasonably could have been spotted. Oregon scores a touchdown six plays later.
  • Cal 3rd and 4 from the Cal 35 yard line: Jared Goff seemingly completes a 5 yard pattern to Kenny Lawler, who fumbles when he reaches down with his hand to steady himself before falling on his own fumble. The pass is ruled incomplete on the field, and the call is upheld upon review, prompting Sonny Dykes to go insane and draw a 15 yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Oregon returns the subsequent punt for a touchdown.
  • Oregon 2nd and 10 from the Oregon 33: Royce Freeman fumbles, and Michael Lowe returns the ball to the 5 yard line. Cal punches it in 3 plays later.
  • Cal 3rd and 2 from the Cal 28: With about 1:15 left in the half, Darius Powe is open over the middle for what would have been an easy first down. Unfortunately, DeForest Buckner gets a hand on the ball along the line, and Cal is forced to punt without running off any more clock. Oregon scores a touchdown three plays later.
The first three plays all swung on referee decisions that could have gone either way. If the ref spots the ball 6 inches further down the field, it wouldn't get overturned on review. If the ref on the field says that Lawler makes a 'football' move (whatever the hell that is) it would get overturned on review. Unfortunately, the calls didn't go Cal's way, and they all gave the ball right back to Oregon's deadly skill position players.

Michael Lowe's fumble recovery allowed the Bears to climb back into a game that was looking like it might turn into a blowout. Unfortunately, the Goff tipped pass gave Oregon the ball with a chance to make something happen, and the Oregon offense did what it always does. Oh, if only Buckner's hand had been a foot to either side, and the worst case scenario probably would have been a 3-point halftime deficit.

The 2nd half was mostly an exercise in Oregon scoring just enough to keep Cal at bay. The critical play that likely ended any realistic chances of Cal winning was a blown coverage on 3rd and 21 that turned into a 54-yard Byron Marshall touchdown. That gave Oregon a 3-possession lead, and Cal would never get within two scores the rest of the way.

So, why did Cal lose a game by 18 points when they were only out-gained by 30 yards? Well, it's worth noting that Oregon's offense was significantly more explosive than Cal's. Oregon required only 76 plays to gain their 560 yards, while Cal needed 93. But a bigger reason? Cal's special teams had their worst game of the year by a wide, wide margin. The lowlights?
  • Oregon returned a punt for a touchdown, in part because the punt didn't get much hang time, and in part because the coverage team missed a bunch of tackle opportunities.
  • Another punt traveled just 32 yards and set up Oregon in great field position to score the final, critical touchdown before halftime.
  • Cal's kickoff coverage was consistently poor when Langford failed to reach the end zone with his kicks. One deep kick was returned into Cal territory, and various squibs resulted in mostly excellent Oregon field position.
  • James Langford missed a 47 yard kick, perhaps in part because of a high snap.
  • Cal had to burn a timeout because the punt return team came out with only 10 men on the field.
  • Bryce Treggs didn't call for a fair catch when under pressure and ended up fumbling a punt. It probably didn't make a different in the final outcome, but it was the final blow that ensured the final outcome.
Save one punt downed at the 3 and a few decent kickoff returns, Cal special teams provided no positive plays, and many negative plays. I don't think it was the difference between winning and losing, but it certainly helped eliminate whatever chance the Bears might have had.

Offensively, this game was a big step forward. Cal has proven that they can run up the score on bad defenses like Washington State and Colorado. Their effort against average or better defenses has been significantly more hit and miss. That the offense managed to put up 41 points and 500+ yards against what might be the best defense they have faced all year, and without relying on the big play, should be extremely encouraging for the last four games of the regular season.

Defensively . . . well, Cal faced 14 meaningful Oregon drives, and allowed 7 touchdowns and a field goal. It's not a performance that anybody will lavish praise upon, but it's not significantly different than what most teams allow to the Ducks. The defense is still very young, still very beat up, and still making just enough plays that the offense can steal games if they play up to their full potential. Considering the circumstances there's not much more we can reasonably ask for.

While special teams and game management from the coaching staff continue to cause confusion, I'm choosing to focus on the positive. Daniel Lasco is a running back who knows how to wring the most yards possible out of every play. Michael Lowe is the safety we need and the safety we deserve. Our wide receivers are talented, tough, and very very deep (how about Mo Harris stepping up with 9 catches!) and Jared Goff looks so impressive when he's given time to look down field. There are 30 players listed on Cal's defensive depth chart and only 3 of them are seniors.

It takes a quantum leap forward to turn last year's disaster into a team that can compete with the likes of Oregon. This team still doesn't quite have the depth of talent and experience necessary to stop a player like Marcus Mariota. It can get frustrating waiting for it to happen, but that doesn't change the general course of the trajectory.