Thursday night special: Can Cal slow Oregon again?
California's biggest advantage over No. 9 Oregon this Thursday night may be that the Golden Bears surprised the Ducks last season.
Oregon struggled against Cal in Strawberry Canyon, emerging with a 15-13 victory. It was the fewest points and yards (317) for the speedy Ducks last season.
And it begs the question: If the Bears did it before, can they do it again?
''We had a lot of mistakes in that win. I think they're looking forward to another shot at us,'' Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas said.
Jeff Maehl caught a 29-yard pass for the Ducks' only offensive touchdown in that game, and then-No. 1 Oregon caught a big break in the fourth quarter on an illegal motion penalty against California's kicker. The field goal would have given the Golden Bears a one-point advantage.
LaMichael James was held to 91 yards rushing, which at that time was a season low, and Oregon had to look to its defense to keep the Bears at bay.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford said this week that his team can learn from last year's effort - to a point.
''To be able to repeat what happened last year is a huge challenge because the defense did play very well. But it's not just going to happen by saying, `It happened last year so it's going to happen this year.' It's all about execution,'' he said.
Last season's game was also notable because a Cal defensive player was caught looking to the sideline after a play before abruptly collapsing to the ground with an ''injury.'' Video of the flop went viral on the Internet.
There was widespread speculation that Cal faked the injury to slow down Oregon's high-speed spread offense. The suspicions were confirmed later in the season when defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi was suspended for a game after admitting he instructed the player to go down.
Cal's success this year depends again on whether the Bears can slow down the Ducks (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12), who rank atop the conference with an average of 299.5 yards rushing a game. James leads the nation with an average of 153 yards a game, boosted by his 288 yards in Oregon's 56-31 victory at Arizona.
Conversely, California's defense has allowed an average of just over 78 rushing yards per game this season.
''Honestly, you look at our team from last year to this year, it's a completely different team. All new personnel, for the most part, everywhere around,'' said Cal defensive lineman Ernest Owusu. ''So, yeah, it hurt last year but that's way in the past and there's nothing we can do about it right now. All we can do is prepare for this game.''
In the season-opening loss to now-No. 1 LSU, the Ducks labored on the ground with just 95 yards rushing. James, a Heisman finalist last season, ran for 54 of those.
But since then, Oregon has steadily improved numbers-wise. In the win against the Wildcats on Sept. 24, the Ducks had 415 yards rushing.
''They're even better than they were last year,'' Tedford said. ''The backs are stronger, they break more tackles. Both backs (James and Kenjon Barner) are excellent backs as everybody knows. LaMichael just seems to me like he's breaking more tackles. I think everybody understands that when he hits a crease he's very dangerous.''
Because of last season, there was talk that Cal had a blueprint for beating the Ducks. Barner doubts that's true, but said Oregon was certainly caught off-guard.
''They did some things that we weren't prepared for and we definitely made some mistakes we usually don't make,'' Barner said.
Oregon had last weekend off, as did California (3-1, 0-1).
The Bears were coming off a 31-21 loss to Washington in Seattle. Cal got to Washington's 2-yard-line on the final drive of the game but could not punch it in. It was California's first loss of the season.
''The biggest thing that we did was we watched the tape, learned from it and then took the bye week to get better from our mistakes so we can keep moving on with the season,'' Owusu said.
Cal leads the overall series 39-32-2, but Oregon has won the last two.
The hoopla surrounding the nationally televised Thursday night game is being amplified by the Ducks, who are breaking out new jerseys for the game that harken back to their bright green and yellow uniforms of the past.
''I was telling some of the young guys, `Y'all haven't seen the atmosphere yet,''' Thomas said. ''First night game, plus we're in school, and on a Thursday, I know it's going to be over the top.''