In a blink of an eye, Marcus Mariota and Oregon turned a tight game into another blowout that could have the Ducks in position to move into the top spot in the country.
Mariota threw the third of his school record-tying six touchdown passes on the first play after an interception to break open what had been a close game and help Oregon make its case for the top ranking in the country by beating California 59-17 on Saturday night.
While the final score was lopsided, the game was tight until midway through the third quarter when Boseko Lokombo intercepted a screen pass from Allan Bridgford. Mariota threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Josh Huff on the next play to give the Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-12) a 31-17 lead.
”That kind of got things going again,” Mariota said. ”It flipped the momentum. It’s really a momentum game. That helped us out.”
The Ducks, No. 3 in the BCS standings, withstood injuries to its entire starting defensive line and brief absences by Mariota and star running back Kenjon Barner to extend the longest active winning streak in major college football to 13 games.
The win over California (3-8, 2-6) could be enough to move Oregon up to No. 1 after top-ranked Alabama lost earlier in the day 29-23 to No. 15 Texas A&M. Even more importantly, the Crimson Tide loss cleared one potential rival for a spot in the BCS title game, leaving Notre Dame and Kansas State as the only other major undefeated teams eligible for a bowl. The Ducks are currently third in the BCS rankings.
”That’s what’s so good about this team,” Huff said. ”We don’t pay attention to the rankings and what’s around us. We just play Oregon football. We’ll pick our heads up in December and we’ll see where we’re at.”
After struggling for more than a half against a Golden Bears team that was missing quarterback Zach Maynard and star receiver Keenan Allen, the Ducks will have to be more consistent the next few weeks if they want to remain unbeaten. They finish the regular season against No. 16 Stanford and No. 13 Oregon State and also could be in the Pac-12 title game.
Oregon raced past the Bears with their passing game instead of the vaunted running attack that had rushed for at least 400 yards in the previous three games. Cal held Barner to 65 yards on 20 carries — 256 fewer yards than he had last week against USC — and even knocked him out briefly with a hard hit that sent him to the locker room in the first half.
”They did a good job of filling the box,” Mariota said. ”That gave us and the passing game more opportunity to do what we can do. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you have such a good running back like Kenjon. Guys fill the box to stop him.”
Mariota also left the game after a hard fall late in the second quarter but returned the following series. He then helped the Ducks break the game open in the second half with four TD passes, including two to Huff.
Mariota completed 27-of-34 passes for a career-high 377 yards and tied the school TD record last achieved by Darron Thomas last year against Nevada. Huff finished with five catches for 109 yards and three scores as the Ducks set a major college football record by scoring at least 40 points for a 13th straight game.
”You have to pick your poison really with them,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. ”If you’re going to get up in there and try to stop the run, then the play-action, you’re covering really fast guys running down the field.”
The biggest moment came midway through the third quarter after the Bears cut Oregon’s lead to 24-17 and got a stop on defense to fire up a crowd that has had little to cheer about this season.
Isi Sofele, who rushed for 134 yards, had been gashing Oregon’s defense in the second half and started this drive with a 14-yard run. But Cal went away from him and Bridgford threw the interception under heavy pressure from Arik Armstead that turned the tides as Oregon scored the final 35 points.
”From then on it just stockpiled,” safety Brian Jackson said. ”It was very important to that game.”
That ended the Bears chances in the final home game of the season and perhaps final home game for Tedford at Cal. There have been questions raised about Tedford’s status after missing a bowl for the second time in three years. The Bears have lost four straight for the first time ever under Tedford.
Bridgford finished 9 for 21 for 113 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
”We felt like at halftime we were going to win the game,” Bridgford said. ”The second half they pulled away a little bit, but we had our chances. We beat ourselves.”
Mariota left the game holding his left arm in the second quarter but returned after Vincenzo D’Amato missed a 48-yard field goal late in the half for Cal. Mariota drove the Ducks 69 yards, capped by a 10-yard pass to Huff that made it 24-10 at the half.