Sunday, November 14, 2010

No. 1 Oregon ekes out defensive struggle over California

Jeff Maehl caught a 29-yard pass for the Ducks' only offensive touchdown, and No. 1 Oregon caught a huge break on an illegal motion penalty against California's kicker during a 15-13 victory on Saturday night, keeping the Ducks on course for the BCS title game.

Cliff Harris returned a punt 64 yards for the only touchdown in the first half for the Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-10), who undeniably wobbled on the road to a shot at the national championship. Oregon's offense managed a season-low 317 yards and went scoreless in two quarters -- yet the defense largely shut down Cal after its opening drive.

Those defensive players were just as surprised as everybody else in Strawberry Canyon when the normally purring Oregon offense sputtered and stalled. The Ducks had played just three scoreless quarters all season long until Cal shut them out in the first and fourth.

Oregon also got a bit of luck: Early in the fourth quarter, Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio erased his own 24-yard field goal, which would have put the Golden Bears ahead by one, by taking a stutter step forward before the snap. The junior then missed a 29-yard try on the next play. Oregon kicker Rob Beard also missed two field goals after going 8 for 8.

Darron Thomas passed for 155 yards and led a final drive that chewed up the last 9 1/2 minutes. It was a strange sight to see the high-speed Ducks down shift into super-slow motion, but it worked to perfection: Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James took turns with the ball while Thomas milked the play clock on an 18-play, 65-yard drive.

The Heisman hopeful James rushed for a season-low 91 yards, but Oregon's defense shut out Cal's offense for the final 55 minutes. James left Berkeley leaning on crutches with his left leg in a protective casing, but he played on Oregon's final drive, and the tailback insisted he was fine.

The Bears held the nation's most prolific scoring team almost 40 points below its average, but couldn't get the Ducks' offense off the field when they most needed a stop. Cal defensive tackle Derrick Hill forced a fumble and recovered it in the end zone for the Bears (5-5, 3-4), who lost at home for the first time all season -- but only after putting a mighty scare into their first top-ranked opponent in five years.

Just two hurdles remain between the Ducks and an unbeaten regular season: a visit from Arizona on Nov. 26, followed by the Civil War at Oregon State.

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