Cal creates blueprint for slowing Oregon’s offense

Clancy Pendergast deserved to take a bow after his California
defense did the previously unthinkable, holding No. 1 Oregon’s
high-octane offense to 317 yards and one touchdown.

Instead, the Golden Bears’ defensive coordinator could only
lament their wasted effort Saturday night in a 15-13 loss that kept
the humbled Ducks on track for a national title shot.

”You don’t play for moral victories,” Pendergast said while
the Ducks celebrated their narrow escape with a large contingent of
Oregon fans in chilly Strawberry Canyon.

Yet the Bears’ breakthrough certainly wasn’t a waste for the
Ducks’ final three opponents: Arizona, Oregon State and their bowl
foe. Pendergast concocted a game plan that largely stopped the
Oregon juggernaut, forcing the Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-10) to rely on
their defense to move within two games of a perfect regular
season.

”They had our number this week,” Oregon center Jordan Holmes
said. ”They came to play. Their schemes worked. I’m not exactly
sure what they were doing. They figured out something that was
working for them, but we finally started adjusting.”

Holmes had no idea how the Bears did it, but a few strategies
stood out.

Cal (5-5, 3-4) used a myriad of defensive fronts, alternating
its number of down linemen on almost every play. The Bears made
their changes as quickly as the Ducks run their plays, usually
using the same players.

In the secondary, the Bears had at least five defensive backs on
the field for most plays, even after starting cornerbacks Marc
Anthony and Darian Hagan were injured. They used simple man-to-man
coverage on almost every play, and safety Chris Conte spent most of
the game right near the line of scrimmage, spying on Oregon
quarterback Darron Thomas.

”You never could really tell when they were blitzing,” said
Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who left Berkeley on crutches – he
said he was fine – after managing a season-low 91 yards and failing
to score for the first time this season. ”They move around a lot
and have a lot of different fronts. I think that was the toughest
part.”

Pendergast’s greatest achievement might have been something a
bit less tangible: He convinced his players that they could hang
with an offense averaging 54.7 points and 567 yards while winning
each of its first nine games by at least 11 points.

The Ducks are an intimidating flock, with their slick uniforms
and crazed fan base, yet the Bears didn’t flinch.

”I had no doubt that we were going to win this game,” Conte
said. ”It was ripe for the upset. We knew that if we came out and
executed, this team was very beatable.”

There’s another possible tactic that opponents might want to
consider: The Ducks complained about the Bears’ series of
clock-stopping injuries on defense, almost all involving a backup
player at a point when Cal really could have used a breather.

They might have been legitimate, or they might have been minor
gamesmanship. Either way, the Ducks couldn’t snap the ball
immediately after the referees put it on the turf.

”That slowed our tempo down, and the refs let them do it,”
said Thomas, who went 15 of 29 for 155 yards and just one
touchdown.

With a bye week before two games against slumping teams to
finish the season, the Ducks are close enough to fantasize about
the BCS title game – not that coach Chip Kelly would ever allow
such a thing, of course.

If Oregon beats the Wildcats on the day after Thanksgiving, the
Ducks will clinch their second straight Pac-10 title even before
the Civil War.

Oregon hadn’t really been challenged in a fourth quarter this
season until Cal nearly took a one-point lead early in the period.
Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio’s botched field goal attempts helped the
Ducks, but their final drive was even more important.

Before the Ducks took over at their own 20 with 9 1/2 minutes
left, Kelly told the offense that this drive would be something
they described to their grandchildren. Eighteen plays – 17 on the
ground – and 65 yards later, when Thomas took a knee to run out the
clock, Kelly was proven correct.

”That last drive is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever
been a part of,” Holmes said. ”At that point, they’re putting the
game on us, and on LaMichael’s shoulders. We love that.”