It's almost impossible to overstate how well Cal's defense played in its 15-13 loss to Oregon on Nov. 13. And it's almost impossible to overstate how well the Bears' defense has played in their home games this season.
And it's almost impossible to overstate how close the Bears came to pulling off the biggest upset of the college football season.
It's also impossible to guess how effective Cal's defense will be in the Nov. 20 Big Game against traditional rival Stanford. The Cardinal has one of the nation's best offenses, too, but the game is at Cal, and no team, no matter how potent, has been able to do much offensively against Cal in Berkeley.
On the road, the Bears' defense is mediocre at best. But at home, Cal may be the best defensive team in the country. It is an inexplicable, but undeniable, fact.
Against Oregon, the Bears' defense yielded only one touchdown to the highest scoring team in the country (the other touchdown came on a punt return), and even the lone touchdown allowed by the Bears' defense came after a turnover gave the Ducks possession at the Cal 29-yard line.
Cal limited the Ducks to their lowest scoring output and lowest yardage total of the season. Oregon's previous season low in points was 42.
Plus, Cal's defense scored one of the Bears' two touchdowns on an extraordinary defensive play by nose tackle Derrick Hill.
The difference in the game was a pair of two-point conversions -- one Oregon got off its extra-point formation that allows the Ducks to go for two at any time, and the one Cal did not get after its second touchdown.
The inefficiency of Cal quarterback Brock Mansion and a strange penalty that negated the go-ahead field goal prevented the Bears from pulling off the startling upset.
Mansion, in just his second collegiate start, was simply not accurate enough to get the job done. He was just 10 of 28 for a mere 69 yards, and that does not include his errant throw on the two-point attempt after the Bears' second touchdown.
There may be debate whether the Bears could have won the game if Kevin Riley was still the starting quarterback. Riley sustained a season-ending knee injury two games earlier against Oregon State, and he is certainly a more accurate passer than Mansion. But Riley also had a penchant for making the critical mistake at the most inopportune time. Mansion was not accurate and was unable to move the team after the Bears' first drive of the game (which resulted in Cal's only offensive touchdown), but he did not make any of those game-changing mistakes that plagued Riley throughout his career.
Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio added a strange penalty that ruined things for the Bears. He made a 24-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter to apparently give the Bears a 16-15 lead. But just before the snap Tavecchio had taken a step forward before stepping back and restarting his approach to complete the kick, and that first step constituted an illegal-motion penalty. After the 5-yard penalty, Tavecchio missed a 29-yard attempt.
Tavecchio later said the noise made by the Oregon fans, who were packed into the end zone at that end of the field, caused the Cal snapper to miss the cadence. He snapped the ball late on the play that resulted in Tavecchio's misstep and a penalty.
Although the Bears' defense has been outstanding in Cal's home games, Cal's offense has been only marginally better at home, and it did little to help the Bears' chances against Oregon.
The only shortcoming of the Cal defense against Oregon was that it was unable to get off the field on Oregon's final possession, as the Ducks ate up the final 9:25 of the game with a 16-play drive that included 15 runs and one 6-yard pass. It was an odd way for the Ducks to clinch their first close win of the season, because they are known as a quick-strike team that prides itself on using very little time off the clock to score points.
So Cal heads into its final two games against Stanford and Washington knowing it needs to win one of the two games to get into a bowl game. It also knows both games are at home, where the Bears' defense has been outstanding.
NOTES & QUOTES
Oregon was caught off guard by Cal's defensive game plan. The Bears used man-to-man coverage in the secondary virtually the entire game, something the Bears had rarely used in the previous games.
Cal's defense has yielded a total of 27 points in its five home games. Three touchdowns scored against Cal in those five games came when the Bears' defense was not on the field. The Bears' defense has yielded three touchdowns at home, and only one of those scoring drives started on the opposing team's side of the 50-yard line. That was a 60-yard scoring drive by Colorado in the third quarter of the second game, after the Bears already led 31-0.
Cal needs one win to get to a bowl game for the eighth straight season, and it needs two wins to avoid its first losing season under Jeff Tedford, now in his ninth season at Cal.
Although Stanford traditionally is Cal's final regular-season opponent, that isn't the case this season. It was not the last game of the regular-season last year either, and won't be the final game in 2011.
NT Derrick Hill scored a touchdown for Cal by forcing a Darron Thomas fumble and falling on the ball in the end zone.
GAME BALL GOES TO: NT Derrick Hill -- The play he made to score a touchdown in the third quarter was as good a play as you'll see a defensive player make, and that play alone earns him the game ball. Oregon had yielded only five sacks all season coming into Saturday's game, but Hill broke through a double team to get into the backfield. He then deftly slapped the ball out of Darron Thomas' hand as he had his arm cocked to throw. Then Hill chased down the bouncing ball and fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown that reduced the Oregon lead to 15-13. Only a missed two-point conversion prevented it from being a game-tying score.
KEEP AN EYE ON: LB Mike Mohamed -- After a subpar game against Washington State the previous week, when he had just three tackles, Mohamed had perhaps the best game of his career against Oregon, recording 14 tackles, 10 of which were solo stops. He also had a sack and was as responsible as anyone for preventing the Oregon offense from being as efficient as it usually is. Mohamed played with a brace on his left hand to protect a broken thumb sustained two games earlier.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They played their hearts out, no question. To give up one touchdown against that offense, they played great. The defensive coaches had a great plan and the kids executed it. It's a shame. It's a shame. I feel sick for the kids." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford, on his team's defensive effort against Oregon on Nov. 13.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: The Cal defense played its best game of the year, and that's saying something because it has had some good ones this season at home. The Bears used five defensive backs most of the game, and Cal has had its most success when it plays with that alignment. Oregon TB LaMichael James had 91 yards, only the second time this season he was held under 100 yards rushing. Oregon QB Darron Thomas was sacked twice, after Oregon had yielded just five sacks all season. The Ducks were held to a season-low 317 yards of total offense, and the Ducks, who lead the nation by a wide margin in scoring, managed just one offensive touchdown, and that came on a 29-yard drive.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Cal's passing game. Oregon has a pretty good pass defense, but the Bears can't expect to beat a decent team with just 69 yards passing, which is what QB Brock Mansion had against the Ducks. Mansion was just 10 of 28, and although he did not make any major mistakes, he did not produce enough of a passing threat to allow the Bears to move the ball consistently. He was sacked once, but he generally had enough time to make plays. The 13 points by Cal tied the lowest point production by a Pac-10 opponent against Oregon this season, and it was primarily because the Bears had very little passing threat. It was just the second career start for Mansion, who figures to get better the more he plays. He will need to be better for Cal to have a chance against Stanford in their Nov. 20 game.
TB Shane Vereen rushed for 112 yards against Oregon and scored his 29th career rushing touchdown, tying him for third place on Cal's all-time list for rushing touchdowns.
K Giorgio Tavecchio has not made a field goal since the Oct. 23 game against Arizona State. He missed a 37-yard attempt against Washington State on Nov. 6 and a 29-yarder against Oregon. Tavecchio began the season making his first five attempts, and he was 7-for-7 on kicks of less than 40 yards before his last two misses.
CB Marc Anthony sustained an undisclosed injury against Oregon, and his status for the game against Stanford is unclear.