Cal Football: Ranked Bears Fall Hard Against Oregon Ducks

BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Kaulana Apelu #39 of the Oregon Ducks hits Brandon McIlwain #5 of the California Golden Bears as he passes the ball at California Memorial Stadium on September 29, 2018 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Kaulana Apelu #39 of the Oregon Ducks hits Brandon McIlwain #5 of the California Golden Bears as he passes the ball at California Memorial Stadium on September 29, 2018 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Cal football entered Saturday ranked for the first time in three years, but fell hard as the Oregon Ducks rolled to a big win.

Playing as a ranked team for the first time since October 22nd, 2015, the Cal football team took the field as the number 24. They welcomed the Oregon Ducks, the nation’s number 19 team, to Memorial Stadium, in one of five matchups between ranked teams on the day. It did not go well for the Golden Bears.

Cal put themselves in good position on the game’s first drive, moving the ball well and picking up good chunks on the ground. Oregon’s defense entered as one of the stingiest run defenses in the country, allowing 80 rush yards per game over their first four games. Cal picked up 44 yards on the ground on that first drive, but couldn’t punch it into the endzone. They settled for a Greg Thomas field goal to take an early 3-0 lead almost halfway through the first quarter.

Oregon didn’t need that much time to answer. Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Justin Herbert led the Ducks down the field quickly, and eight plays and three minutes after taking the field, the Ducks took the lead. Herbert threw for 51 yards on that first drive, including a beautiful 30-yard scoring strike to Kano Dillon.

Cal had fallen behind for the first time in the 2018 season, but they fought back. Quarterback Chase Garbers would throw an interception on a deep ball to Jeremiah Hawkins, but the defense held and forced an Oregon punt. Cal went three-and-out from deep in their own territory, but caught a big break via unsportsmanlike conduct after the failed third-down play. Brandon McIlwain flipped field position with a 24-yard pass to Kanawai Noa, then put Cal back in front with a dazzling 28-yard touchdown run that featured some nifty moves and a big broken tackle.

After that early surge, Cal was no match for the Ducks. True freshman Travis Dye put Oregon back ahead with a 45-yard scoring run, and that was the beginning of the end. Oregon piled on from there, first with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Herbert then a big mistake from Cal. McIlwain was strip-sacked, and Oregon defender La’Mar Winston took it 61 yards for another touchdown.

That put Oregon up 28-10 at the half, and the time in the locker room didn’t slow the Ducks. On the first play of the second half, C.J. Verdell went 74 yards to Cal’s one-yard line, and Cyrus Habibi-Likio finished it off to make it 35-10.

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The Bears were able to answer back on the first drive of the second half. For the first time this season, running back Patrick Laird was able to gain some big yardage, first with a 19-yard carry, then with a 10-yard touchdown run, his second rushing score of the year. Cal looked like they were ready to get back into the game, forcing a fumble on Oregon’s next drive, but Garbers threw his second interception and killed off any momentum the Bears had taken. An interception return for a touchdown with about three minutes left was the final nail in the coffin.

The big difference in this game was quarterback play, an unsurprising turn of events considering the cast of characters. Herbert is one of the best in the game right now, and he played like it. He completed 16 of his 22 pass attempts for 225 yards, and threw two long and perfectly-placed touchdowns. He also ran the ball six times for 31 yards, showing off excellent athleticism for a guy his size.

With former Golden Bear superstar Jared Goff in attendance, neither Cal quarterback could live up to his lofty standards. McIlwain was 11-for-21 through the air for 128 yards, and did throw his second touchdown with Cal. Garbers hit on just four of his nine passes for 44 yards. Both quarterbacks threw a pair of interceptions.

One positive development for the Bears was their running game. After three straight disappointing games to open the season, Laird carried 18 times and gained a season-high 92 yards. He ran for 5.1 yards per carry, also a season-best. McIlwain also showed his excellent running ability by piling up 123 yards on 15 carries, becoming Cal’s first quarterback to rush for at least 100 yards since Joe Kapp ran for 130 in 1958. As a team, Cal ran for 241 yards, more than triple what Oregon had allowed on average in the first four weeks.

On defense, linebacker Evan Weaver continued his fantastic season. He collected double-digit tackles for the fourth straight game, finishing with a career-high 14 stops. Fellow linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk joined in the party with 11 tackles, and forced his second career fumble.

This was a big setback for Cal, and one that will almost certainly knock them out of the top-25. They have a lot to figure out as the Pac-12 schedule rolls on, and number one on that list will still be their quarterback play. McIlwain showed good flashes as a passer, but also showed how raw he still is.

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Next in line are the Arizona Wildcats, who sit at 2-3 on the season and 1-1 in the Pac-12 after a loss to USC. Arizona has another dangerous offense, and though their defense isn’t great, it will present problems for a team like Cal that is struggling to move the ball consistently.