SANTA CLARA -- Another week, another loss for California, who was defeated by the No. 6 Oregon Ducks 59-41 last night to take its losing streak to three games. The Bears must now win two out of their last four games to reach the .500 mark required for a bowl game.
“We made too many mistakes in the ball game to beat a team as good as Oregon,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “We got to get more disciplined, [there were] too many mistakes and guys were trying to make some plays and do too much. A lot of the things we can get corrected, so we’ll look at the tape and get ready to play at Oregon State next week.”
While screen passes and poor tackling were still huge issues on the field, there was one key statistic that showed the Bears’ inability to preform in key moments. This week, it’s Cal’s defense’s inability to stop Oregon on critical third down situations and get off the field to get some rest.
“Tackling’s been an issue for us,” said Dykes. “Oregon has good players with the ball in their hands and they’re tough to tackle.”
Cal was 6-16 on 3rd down conversions, while the Marcus Mariota led Ducks offense was 10-17. However, it wasn’t necessarily the sheer number of times that Oregon was able to convert on third down, but when those conversions occurred. There were numerous key plays where Cal needed a stop that Mariota was able to secure the first down.
“Like any other game when you’re playing defense, you got to stop them on third down and we didn’t get off the field on third down,” said Cal safety Stefan McClure. “They were 10-17 and that’s too many opportunities. If you get off the field on third down, they really can’t score so that’s just a lost of mistakes on our part as far as tackling and running to the ball.”
The first major third down conversion for the Ducks occurred on their first drive of the game. The Bears had scored on their opening drive, and stopping the Ducks for three points would have made a large, early statement. On third-and-five from the Cal 28 yard line, Mariota was pressured and ran all over the pocket, covering tons of ground, before evading Todd Barr and Hardy Nickerson to pick up the first down with a seven yard run. This was the first indication that the Bears defense would struggle mightily with Mariota’s supreme running ability, and his ability to move the pocket and keep plays alive with his feet, if not gain yards himself.
“It was just a shootout out there,” said McClure. “We finally strung together got a couple turnovers, got some stops and huge plays, and we just got to make some more plays out there. Tackling and mainly just getting off the field on third down is what the game comes down to.”
Cal had yet another chance to hold Oregon to a field goal after Vic Enwere was stopped on a fourth-and-one early in the second quarter, with the Ducks up, 17-14. On third-and-goal from the Bears’ nine, Mariota had tons of time in the pocket, and threw a bullet across the middle to tight end Pharoah Brown -- one of four touchdowns thrown to tight end/inside receiver types on the day, and the first of two for Brown. The Ducks again converted on a crucial third down, and didn’t settle for field goals, allowing them to capitalize on the Bears mistakes.
The third and biggest mistake for the Bears came on Oregon’s first possession of the second half. After a tackle for a loss and a pass interference call, it looked like Cal was all set for a big stop. However, on third down with 21 yards to go for the first, the Bears rushed only three, and a blown coverage over the top resulted in Byron Marshall becoming wide open on a wheel route for an easy Oregon touchdown. That touchdown gave Oregon a 45-28 lead, their biggest of the night thus far, and made the Ducks 7-for-9 on 3rd downs.
“He hit us on a wheel route,” said Dykes. “Art called cover-3 to prevent the post wheel, and it’s the best defense to play the post wheel on. The corner just chased the post a little bit and didn’t see the wheel. It’s funny: On the headset [Art] said they were going to throw a post wheel here, ‘I’m going to call cover-3 and we got it handled.’ It just didn’t work out that way.”
These three plays are representative of the constant key conversions throughout the game. Cal was not able to counter the scrambling ability of Mariota, and his talent to extend plays, as he was constantly able to avoid pressure and run for the first down. Additionally, Brown, a 6-6 junior, was a favorite safety valve of Mariota’s on third down, with the tight end consistently being defended by a defender at least six inches shorter.
In comparison to previous weeks, this was an abnormally bad performance on third down. Last week, UCLA was only able to convert on 2-of-13, while the week before, Washington -- despite thoroughly defeating the Bears -- was only able to convert on 6-of-15.
“I think the defense is definitely improving,” said Dykes. “We played well enough to win last week against UCLA and we’ve definitely made some strides. We have had a tough couple ball games here, and we’ve played pretty well two weeks in a row. Oregon’s a bit different, it’s an elite offensive football team and it’s got a lot of weapons.”
Poor tackling and blown coverages again plagued the team on 3rd down against a fast and up-tempo Oregon offense, but with critical games against Oregon State, USC, and especially Stanford upcoming, Cal will have to quickly find a way to hold opponents, or their goal of a bowl game this season could soon disappear.
“We’re playing with a lot of young players right now and they’re making some mistakes, and that’s what young players do,” said Dykes. “We have so many young freshman playing for us that are still learning how to play and we got to continue to improve and get them better.”