BERKELEY, Calif. – It was all going so well, California doing the two things necessary to upend the Oregon juggernaut. They were stopping the running component of the spread-option offense, while gashing the Ducks defense right up the middle with their own ground game.
And then it was over, Oregon pulling away in what was seemingly the blink of an eye for a 59-17 win.
Center Brian Schwenke had an apt description.
“They’re a weird team. No one, I don’t think, has really figured out the perfect way to stop them yet,” Schwenke said.
“It gets away from you in a hurry,” Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said, reflecting Sunday afternoon. “They’re so explosive. They make such big explosive plays.”
Cal limited Oregon to a season-low 180 yards rushing on 48 carries, largely stunting running back Kenjon Barner’s resurgent Heisman Trophy campaign. After totaling a school-record 322 yards at USC, the senior managed just 65 on 20 attempts.
But quarterback Marcus Mariota more than made up for it, completing 27-of-34 passes for 377 yards and six touchdowns, tying the Oregon single-game record. He was especially effective working between the hashes, attacking the seams of the defense with post patterns to tight end Colt Lyerla and slot receivers.
“You got to pick your poison with what you’re trying to shut down,” Tedford said. “They took advantage of some of the holes in the secondary because of people in run support, but you have to give them credit because they executed. Those balls are on the money.
“And it’s like anything else in that offense: if they get you one-on-one, they can make you miss.”
That precision put Cal in a 38-17 hole at the end of the third quarter, by which point Isi Sofele, C.J. Anderson, and Brendan Bigelow had combined for 197 yards rushing. Facing a three-score deficit, the offense had to abandon the run in a futile attempt to stage a comeback.
Players admitted it was difficult, knowing they could run on the injury-depleted Oregon front seven. At one point, Cal ran the same play on three consecutive snaps, and Sofele gained 45 yards and scored a touchdown, quarterback Allan Bridgford said late Saturday night.
“It’s frustrating, but you got to understand we were down by four touchdowns. That was our only option,” said Sofele, who rushed for a season-high 134 yards in his final game at Memorial Stadium.
“We did our best to try and stick with the run knowing they were up, but it’s hard when you only have so much time. It’s rough,” Schwenke said.
Ironically, Schwenke thought it was one of the best games the offensive line had played all year. They allowed only one sack, and paved the way for a solid 5.9 yards per carry.
“We really had to play better than that,” Schwenke said. “There’s really not much else you can do. You have to play almost perfect.”
Everyone, however, understood the quality of the opposition. Asked if he thought Oregon would win the BCS title, Tedford said, “I think they have a very good chance.
“I just would hope a Pac-10 team is in the national championship to represent our conference,” he later added. “If it happens to be Oregon, that’s great.”
Tedford said Cal came out of the game without suffering any additional major injuries, a bright spot as the team has seen its depth decimated all season, especially in recent weeks.
However, Tedford did not know if several offensive starters, including quarterback Zach Maynard, wide receivers Keenan Allen and Bryce Treggs, and offensive tackle Matt Summers-Gavin would be available to play in the season finale Saturday at Oregon State.
Treggs, who hurt his ankle at Utah, seems the most likely from that group to play.
“He can run straight ahead, but the key for him is change of direction,” Tedford said. “He improved last week.”
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.