Using a brand-new professional stadium as a venue could add excitement to any college football showdown, but when you throw in two Pac-12 North opponents averaging a combined 85 points per game, you have an unbeatable recipe for entertainment.
With dominant and dynamic quarterback Marcus Mariota leading the No.6-ranked Oregon Ducks and the young, promising gunslinger Jared Goff guiding the often-overlooked California Golden Bears, both teams entered Friday night’s game in the nation’s Top-10 in scoring offense.
The stage was set for a shootout and there was certainly no shortage of fireworks as the teams scored a combined 100 points. Despite the 59-41 loss, Cal head coach Sonny Dykes was happy with his team.
“I told the guys after the game I was really proud of how hard they played,” said Dykes after the game. “I mean I thought they played really, really hard… We just made too many mistakes in the ball game to beat a team as good as Oregon.”
Even in their losses to ranked teams such as Arizona, UCLA and Oregon, the Golden Bears have given their opponents a great challenge. This helps to prove the true depth of the Pac-12 and the team is confident that the program is on the brink of something special.
“We’re playing with a lot of young players right now and they’re making some mistakes and that’s what young players do,” Dykes said. “That’s why really good football teams don’t play with that many young guys. I told those guys, I mean the hardest thing you learn as a program is how to play hard and you guys, you know how to play hard.”
That youth and tenacity is encouraging for a Cal program coming off a rough 2013 season, and it points to a bright future. Though he pointed out a lack of depth and experience, Dykes and his players were confident that they had the talent and game plan in place to keep up with Oregon but shot themselves in the foot with small mistakes across the board.
Quarterback Jared Goff agreed with his coach that these little mistakes added up and as a whole were eventually the cause of the team’s loss to the Ducks.
“With a team like that, with a team as good as they are, you can’t make the small mistakes,” Goff said. “When you’re playing a good team and you’re making those small mistakes, they’ll turn into big mistakes.”
Running back Daniel Lasco chimed in as well stating, “We knew it was just going to be a shootout, so every single time they scored we knew we had to answer and it came to a point where, during some of the drives, we didn’t execute enough…it’s the little details holding us back. It’s not anybody else, it’s just ourselves.”
That is the nature of any shootout and with the explosive playmakers that Oregon has on offense, such as Mariota and stud running back Royce Freeman, it is imperative to score points on every drive.
The fireworks started early as Cal and Oregon traded scores throughout the first quarter. Neither team recorded a stop until the Ducks were able to stuff a run on first down and force a pair of Goff incompletions with four minutes to play in the first quarter. The score was deadlocked at 14-14 at that point, and Cal was looking like they were going to keep up with Oregon until the end.
“That’s a credit to the game plan we had coming in,” Goff said. “I mean we felt comfortable with it and came in and executed it. We felt comfortable pretty much the whole first quarter, first half.”
At the end of the first quarter, the Ducks got what appeared would be their spark in the form of a sack and strip on Goff which was recovered by Oregon’s Alex Balducci.
From there Oregon took off and went up 31-14 with help from a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by freshman Charles Nelson who demonstrated excellent patience and vision on the return.
“We let him get out and that was a concern coming in,” Dykes said. “You know he’s a good punt returner, and…[Oregon] is hard to get off of the line of scrimmage. It’s tough for our guys to get off those blocks and [Nelson] made a good play.”
Before kickoff, Oregon had the fewest giveaways in the nation with only three. However, the team recorded two uncharacteristic turnovers in the second quarter, one a fumble by Royce Freeman, the other Mariota’s first interception of the season which gave the Bears new life as Cal brought the game back to 31-28 before Oregon punched in one final score right before the half.
The Bears still had life as they came out after the break, but an early deep touchdown strike to Bryon Marshall on a wheel route on Oregon’s first drive of the second half on 3rd-and-21 seemed to deflate Sonny Dykes’ team. The cornerback on that side bit on a post route and Marshall was wide open.
“We were in Cover 3… it’s the best defense against the Post-Wheel,” said Dykes. “The corner just chased the post a little bit and we didn’t see the wheel.”
Cal has plenty to be happy about and, despite the loss, the Golden Bears had their heads held high. Defensive back Stefan McClure demonstrated that after the game:
“We’ve got a confident bunch of guys in that locker room so we know we just have to go back to work and we know we can just minimize the mistakes, and it’s just the really small details we’ve got to string together.”
In the end, the Bears simply weren’t able to keep up with the Ducks. While they played a strong game on offense, they could not contain Marcus Mariota and Oregon’s outside running game. However, the team did show plenty of promise and if they can get those small details together, the Pac-12 North is going to be plenty deep in years to come.
Top Photo by John Guistina