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September 29, 2007

Cal makes statement at Oregon

Box score

EUGENE, Ore. Sophomore safety Marcus Ezeff was the last person to realize he'd made the biggest play of California's season.

The sixth-ranked Golden Bears were clinging to a 31-24 lead over No. 11 Oregon in the final minute when Ezeff arrived late to tackle Ducks wide receiver Cameron Colvin near the end zone. Ezeff assumed Colvin's catch had tied the game or given the Ducks the ball at California's 1.

Just when Ezeff started imagining the scolding he would receive from his coaches, he noticed they were in a surprisingly cheerful mood.

"When I saw my coaches running up and giving the touchback sign," Ezeff said, "that's when I knew it was a fumble."

Ezeff reached Colvin just as the receiver was trying to move the ball from one hand to the other in an attempt to stretch it across the goal line. Ezeff's hit caused the ball to roll into the end zone and head out of bounds with 16 seconds left.

"I thought it was across (the plane)," Colvin said after the Ducks' heartbreaking 31-24 loss. "I was looking at the refs for the touchdown, but that's how it goes."

It was the kind of play that can help create a season of destiny.

California has been overlooked in the national-title discussion, perhaps for good reason. The Golden Bears never have played in a BCS bowl and haven't reached the Rose Bowl since 1959.

But this Cal team just might be different. This marked the first time the Golden Bears had won at Autzen Stadium in two decades. And losses this weekend by No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Florida and No. 5 West Virginia should allow the Bears to enter their bye week as at least the third-ranked team in the nation.

"Everybody knows across the world now that Cal can play some football," said wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins, who grabbed a baton and joined teammate Robert Jordan in conducting the California band during a wild postgame celebration. "A lot of people didn't know we're as good as we are."

Cal wide receiver DeSean Jackson recaptured his 2006 form by catching 11 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon reverted to his 2006 form by throwing two interceptions in the last five minutes, but he still drove the Ducks into position for a game-tying touchdown in the final seconds.

Oregon's Jonathan Stewart and California's Justin Forsett the two leading rushers in the Pac-10 both gained more than 100 yards.

No. 6 CALIFORNIA 31, No. 11 OREGON 24
Offensive player of the game
California WR DeSean Jackson showed why he entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Jackson caught 11 passes for 161 yards more than doubling his season total for receiving yardage and two touchdowns. Jackson had 120 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone.
Defensive player of the game
California SS Marcus Ezeff made a critical late hit in the second quarter that led to an Oregon touchdown, but he also recorded nine tackles and made the biggest hit of the game when he knocked the ball loose from Cameron Colvin to force a game-clinching touchback with 16 seconds left. If Ezell doesn't make that play, the game almost certainly goes into overtime.
Turning point
The touchback was obviously the biggest turning point, but Oregon QB Dennis Dixon threw two critical interceptions in the last five minutes of the game. Anthony Felder's interception at Oregon's 21 led to the go-ahead touchdown. Tyson Alualu picked off a pass at California's 17 to thwart an Oregon scoring opportunity with 2:20 left.
Quick return
California QB Nate Longshore briefly left the game with an injured right ankle midway through the third quarter, but he returned for the next series and directed the winning touchdown drive. Longshore didn't attempt a pass after returning to the game. He missed much of the 2005 season with a broken left ankle. "We're going to get it X-rayed," California coach Jeff Tedford said. "It doesn't appear as bad as when he broke his other one. We'll just keep our fingers crossed that the X-rays are negative."
The waiting is the hardest part
California had waited 20 years to celebrate a win at Autzen Stadium, so the Golden Bears didn't mind waiting a few minutes longer. After officials ruled a touchback on Colvin's fumble, the Golden Bears waited to make sure replays wouldn't overturn the call. Oregon benefited from a controversial replay ruling in a 34-33 victory over Oklahoma last year, but the Ducks weren't as fortunate this time. "I was kind of having a heart attack," Ezeff said of the wait.
What this means for California
The Bears move into the top five and head into their bye week as legitimate national title contenders. As long as Longshore is healthy, the Bears should be feeling good about themselves.
What this means for Oregon
The Ducks must try to avoid a repeat of 2006, when they finished 7-6 after starting 4-0. Oregon plays host to Washington State next week.
Dixon had thrown 135 consecutive passes without an interception before getting picked off by Felder in the fourth quarter. This marked the first time Oregon had lost a game in which junior Jonathan Stewart had rushed for at least 100 yards. Oregon had owned an 8-0 record when Stewart reached the century mark. Dixon, a senior, set career records for pass completions (31) and attempts (44). Dixon has at least one passing and rushing touchdown in every game this season. This marked the first time since Oct. 21, 2006, that Cal failed to score in the first quarter. Cal WR Robert Jordan has caught at least one pass in 35 consecutive games, putting him one game away from the school record.
A game with this much offensive firepower undoubtedly was going to come down to which team avoided mistakes and which defense made the biggest plays down the stretch. And those are the two areas in which California may have improved the most from last season. The Bears finally have developed the personality that separates the best teams from the rest of the pack.

"Championship teams always believe in themselves at all times," California linebacker Worrell Williams said. "They never give up until somebody says, 'OK, it's over.' ''

The California team that got blown out at Tennessee to start the 2006 season probably wouldn't have pulled out a victory in this type of environment.

An Autzen Stadium record crowd of 59,273 made one of the nation's most raucous atmospheres even more intimidating than usual. Yet the Golden Bears never stopped believing Saturday.

"Everybody thought we were going to lose this game," Williams said. "Sometimes it's good to be higher-ranked than the other team and everybody still thinks you're going to lose.

"It gives you something to be upset about. It puts a little chip on your shoulder so you can be a little more hungry."

The Bears didn't back down after getting outrushed 63-4 in the first quarter. They didn't lose their composure when Jordan Kay's 34-yard field-goal attempt in the third quarter sailed wide left at the last possible moment. And they didn't waste any time responding each of the two times Oregon took the lead.

"I don't know if I can put into words how proud I am of these guys," California coach Jeff Tedford said.

Oregon made all the mistakes in critical moments against California's opportunistic defense. Cal entered tied for sixth in the nation in turnover margin, and the Golden Bears forced four takeaways in the fourth quarter Saturday without turning it over themselves.

Three of Oregon's turnovers came in the last five minutes. Anthony Felder picked off a Dixon pass at Oregon's 21-yard line to set up Forsett's game-winning 1-yard touchdown run with 3:11 remaining. Tyson Alualu intercepted a tipped pass at California's 17 to end a scoring threat with 2:20 left. Then came Colvin's fumble.

"Through the course of the game, we started to get them out of their tempo and out of their rhythm," California free safety Thomas DeCoud said. "It was a result of what we were doing throughout the game."

While the Ducks compounded their errors, Ezeff and Co. made sure the Bears didn't repeat their own mistakes.

Ezeff was called for a personal foul in the second quarter when he hit Stewart on the sideline. Instead of facing fourth-and-7 from California's 37, Oregon had an automatic first down that led to the Ducks' first touchdown.

That kind of penalty could have caused Ezeff to hesitate before making a play near the sideline again. Ezeff instead went full speed ahead and made the play that kept the Golden Bears' championship hopes alive.

"I knew my teammates had my back," Ezeff said. "I knew my teammates were still depending on me to make plays. We're going to make mistakes along the way, but we've just got to put that aside and keep making plays."

California won't contend for a national championship unless it makes more plays, particularly on defense. After ranking 91st in the nation in total defense, the Bears have come a long way on that side of the ball.

But they still don't have the type of defense capable of leading a team to a title. It's hard to imagine USC or LSU allowing Oregon to gain 497 yards. An elite defense would have forced more three-and-outs and wouldn't have depended on the Ducks to seal their own fate.

At least California has a championship attitude, if not a championship defense. The Bears may lack a killer instinct, but they sure don't lack confidence.

"No team can beat Cal except for Cal," Williams said.

USC could have something to say about that. The Golden Bears can only hope the ball is still bouncing their way when the top-ranked Trojans visit Berkeley on Nov. 10.

For more coverage of California, visit BearTerritory.com; for more on Oregon, visit DuckSportsAuthority.com.

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