Oregon’s sturdy defense loved the chance to demonstrate that the Ducks’ offense isn’t the only star of this show.
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Jeff Maehl caught a 29-yard pass for the Ducks’ only offensive touchdown, and No. 1 Oregon caught a huge break on an illegal motion penalty against California’s kicker during a 15-13 victory on Saturday night, keeping the Ducks on course for the BCS title game.
Cliff Harris returned a punt 64 yards for the only touchdown in the first half for the Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-10), who undeniably wobbled on the road to a shot at the national championship. Oregon’s offense managed a season-low 317 yards and went scoreless in two quarters — yet the defense largely shut down Cal after its opening drive.
Those defensive players were just as surprised as everybody else in Strawberry Canyon when the normally purring Oregon offense sputtered and stalled. The Ducks had played just three scoreless quarters all season long until Cal shut them out in the first and fourth.
”I wasn’t expecting that, especially in the second half,” Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews said. ”It feels really good to come through for the offense this time. We did pretty good, but we should do that every week, no matter what the offense does.”
Oregon also got a bit of luck: Early in the fourth quarter, Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio erased his own 24-yard field goal, which would have put the Golden Bears ahead by one, by taking a stutter step forward before the snap. The junior then missed a 29-yard try on the next play.
”There’s no excuse for that,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. ”We kick field goals every day. There’s no excuse for jumping the gun like that. It’s poise under pressure, and we didn’t have it right there.”
Oregon kicker Rob Beard also missed two field goals after going 8 for 8.
Darron Thomas passed for 155 yards and led a final drive that chewed up the last 9 1/2 minutes. It was a strange sight to see the high-speed Ducks down shift into super-slow motion, but it worked to perfection: Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James took turns with the ball while Thomas milked the play clock on an 18-play, 65-yard drive.
The Heisman hopeful James rushed for a season-low 91 yards, but Oregon’s defense shut out Cal’s offense for the final 55 minutes. James left Berkeley leaning on crutches with his left leg in a protective casing, but he played on Oregon’s final drive, and the tailback insisted he was fine.
”I pulled my hamstring jumping up and down because we won the game,” James joked. ”At the end of the season, they aren’t going to say, ‘How many points did Oregon beat Cal by?’ They’re just going to see we won.”
The Bears held the nation’s most prolific scoring team almost 40 points below its average, but couldn’t get the Ducks’ offense off the field when they most needed a stop.
Cal defensive tackle Derrick Hill forced a fumble and recovered it in the end zone for the Bears (5-5, 3-4), who lost at home for the first time all season – but only after putting a mighty scare into their first top-ranked opponent in five years.
”It’s very hurtful that we let it slip away,” Hill said. ”There’s no consolation, because you’re left with an L.”
Shane Vereen rushed for 105 yards and scored a touchdown on Cal’s opening drive. Brock Mansion went 10 for 27 for 69 yards in his second career start.
Oregon, which hadn’t won by fewer than 11 points all season, will find out Sunday how its struggles will affect its position in the ranking and BCS standings, where the Ducks lead fellow unbeatens Auburn, TCU and Boise State. Most likely, the Ducks will still control their own destiny in the national championship race.
Just two hurdles remain between the Ducks and an unbeaten regular season: a visit from Arizona on Nov. 26, followed by the Civil War at Oregon State.
Oregon’s offensive struggles certainly weren’t for a lack of nerve. The Ducks went for it twice on fourth down on their opening drive, but turned over the ball at midfield. After an incomplete pass, Cal handed the ball five straight times to Vereen, who barreled in from 1 yard out just 4 1/2 minutes into the first quarter.
The Ducks didn’t score until the second quarter, when Harris broke down the Oregon sideline for his fourth TD punt return of the season.
”Every game isn’t going to be a 50-point blowout,” Harris said. ”You need luck sometimes, but luck favors the prepared.”
Defensive end Dion Jordan took the 2-point conversion in for a score on a trick play, putting the Ducks up 8-7.
Vereen fumbled at the Cal 29 on the Bears’ first drive of the second half, and Thomas hit Maehl in stride for a score on the next play, finally showing off the quick-strike offense that has captivated college football.
But Hill’s tremendous play punished the Ducks moments later. He swatted the ball out of Thomas’ hand as the quarterback drew back to pass before recovering it in the end zone, with the play upheld by video review.
Cal failed on the 2-point conversion pass, but mounted another clock-chewing drive to the Oregon 7 moments later. That led to Tavecchio’s crucial misstep.
”It was pretty loud,” Tavecchio said. ”We don’t have a rhythmic cadence, but the snapper, the holder and I have a rhythm. It’s usually a couple of seconds after the cadence, but the ball came back a little bit later, and I jumped.”