Cal creates blueprint for slowing down Ducks

Oregon wide receiver D.J. Davis (10) is tackled by California defensive tackle Cameron Jordan (97) in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Clancy Pendergast deserved to take a bow after his California defense did the previously unthinkable, holding No. 1 Oregon’s high-octane offense to 317 yards and one touchdown.

Instead, the Golden Bears’ defensive coordinator could only lament their wasted effort Saturday night in a 15-13 loss that kept the humbled Ducks on track for a national title shot.

“You don’t play for moral victories,” Pendergast said while the Ducks celebrated their narrow escape with a large contingent of Oregon fans in chilly Strawberry Canyon.

Yet the Bears’ breakthrough certainly wasn’t a waste for the Ducks’ final three opponents: Arizona, Oregon State and their bowl foe. Pendergast concocted a game plan that largely stopped the Oregon juggernaut, forcing the Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-10) to rely on their defense to move within two games of a perfect regular season.

“They had our number this week,” Oregon center Jordan Holmes said. “They came to play. Their schemes worked. I’m not exactly sure what they were doing. They figured out something that was working for them, but we finally started adjusting.”

Holmes had no idea how the Bears did it, but a few strategies stood out.

Cal (5-5, 3-4) used a myriad of defensive fronts, alternating its number of down linemen on almost every play. The Bears made their changes as quickly as the Ducks run their plays, usually using the same players.

In the secondary, the Bears had at least five defensive backs on the field for most plays, even after starting cornerbacks Marc Anthony and Darian Hagan were injured. They used simple man-to-man coverage on almost every play, and safety Chris Conte spent most of the game right near the line of scrimmage, spying on Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas.

“You never could really tell when they were blitzing,” said Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who left Berkeley on crutches — he said he was fine — after managing a season-low 91 yards and failing to score for the first time this season. “They move around a lot and have a lot of different fronts. I think that was the toughest part.”

Pendergast’s greatest achievement might have been something a bit less tangible: He convinced his players that they could hang with an offense averaging 54.7 points and 567 yards while winning each of its first nine games by at least 11 points.

The Ducks are an intimidating flock, with their slick uniforms and crazed fan base, yet the Bears didn’t flinch.

“I had no doubt that we were going to win this game,” Conte said. “It was ripe for the upset. We knew that if we came out and executed, this team was very beatable.”

There’s another possible tactic that opponents might want to consider: The Ducks complained about the Bears’ series of clock-stopping injuries on defense, almost all involving a backup player at a point when Cal really could have used a breather.

They might have been legitimate, or they might have been minor gamesmanship. Either way, the Ducks couldn’t snap the ball immediately after the referees put it on the turf.

“That slowed our tempo down, and the refs let them do it,” said Thomas, who went 15 of 29 for 155 yards and just one touchdown.

With a bye week before two games against slumping teams to finish the season, the Ducks are close enough to fantasize about the BCS title game — not that coach Chip Kelly would ever allow such a thing, of course.

If Oregon beats the Wildcats on the day after Thanksgiving, the Ducks will clinch their second straight Pac-10 title even before the Civil War.

Oregon hadn’t really been challenged in a fourth quarter this season until Cal nearly took a one-point lead early in the period. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio’s botched field goal attempts helped the Ducks, but their final drive was even more important.

Before the Ducks took over at their own 20 with 9½ minutes left, Kelly told the offense that this drive would be something they described to their grandchildren. Eighteen plays — 17 on the ground — and 65 yards later, when Thomas took a knee to run out the clock, Kelly was proven correct.

“That last drive is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever been a part of,” Holmes said. “At that point, they’re putting the game on us, and on LaMichael’s shoulders. We love that.”


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