BERKELEY, Calif. With a defense suffering a bounty of injuries, the Oregon offense had to step up against upset-minded California.
Was there ever any doubt that quarterback Marcus Mariota and company would come to the rescue?
"Our offense was definitely ready to step up for the defense," tight end Colt Lyerla said. "Marcus made some amazing plays out there."
Mariota, the redshirt freshman enjoying a spectacular first season as a starter, played his way into the Oregon record book in the Ducks' 59-17 victory Saturday at Memorial Stadium. He overcame a first-half re-aggravation of a shoulder injury to tie a school record with six touchdown passes and finish 27 of 34 for a personal-best 377 yards. Receiver Josh Huff caught three TD passes and had five receptions for 109 yards. De'Anthony Thomas added eight receptions for 101 yards, and Lyerla continued to play his part in UO's lethal offense with four catches for 64 yards and two scores.
The game Bears, playing for beleaguered coach Jeff Tedford, designed their defensive game plan around controlling Oregon's 300-yards-per-game rushing attack, and succeeded somewhat. Kenjon Barner, a week after rushing for 321 yards and five TDs against USC, had only 65 yards on 20 carries, and the Bears held the Ducks to a season-low 180 yards rushing. Mariota and his receivers had to pick up the slack, and they did in sensational fashion.
"They did a good job of filling the box," Mariota said. "It gave us in the passing game more opportunities to do what we can do."
Mariota was unaware that he had tied Darron Thomas (2011), Joey Harrington (2000, 2001) and Danny O'Neil (1994) for most touchdowns passes in one game.
"Those (receivers) did a good job of running good routes and getting open," he said. "I had a lot of fun throwing it around."
Mariota and Barner were part of Oregon's injury story, but both left and then returned to the game. Barner suffered what appeared to be a hand injury, although he wouldn't talk about the injury. Mariota acknowledged that he hurt his shoulder again, but said he'll be fine.
Injuries on defense were another story. Defensive lineman Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli and Dion Jordan went through warmups but didn't play (maybe they could have played, had the game been close?), and Wade Keliikipi didn't even make the trip. Then Taylor Hart went down, and he was wearing a brace on his foot. So, that accounts for all four starters and one rotation player. True freshmen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, Tony Washington and Hart started, and true freshman Alex Balducci (breaking his redshirt season), Christian French, David Kafovalu and Sam Kamp played ample snaps, and even tight end Koa Ka'ai saw action on the D-line.
The Ducks were primed for an upset, and Cal marched down the field early in the third quarter behind running back Isi Sofele to draw within 24-17.
But the key sequence: Boseko Lokombo picked off Cal quarterback Allan Bridgford, playing in place of injured Zach Maynard, and, on the next play, Mariota threw 35 yards to Huff for the touchdown.
The Bears threatened to score again, but a tripping penalty and then incompletions on third and fourth down ended the threat. The Ducks scored again, on Mariota's 39-yard TD pass to Huff. It was 38-17, and pretty much over.
So, Oregon avoid the upset bid despite the susceptible defensive line.
The Bears had their opportunities and failed. Bridgford finished 9 of 21 for 113 yards and two interceptions. Sofele had 134 yards on 15 carries, and C.J. Anderson added 56 yards on 11 carries. Cal could have pulled off the upset, had Bridgford connected on some passes and the Bears been able to chew up clock with their ground game. It didn't happen.
The Ducks allowed 17 points, 349 yards offense and forced three turnovers.
"There was a lot of new faces out there," defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "It's very gratifying. I thought those kids in the grand scheme of things did an outstanding job.
"We are most proud of how they played."
Said Armstead: "We knew it was going to be tough for us, with a new rotation. Coach Az (Jerry Azzinaro) told us to go out there and play hard. We knew we'd make mistakes. We worked through it and came out with the win. I'm proud of the new guys."
The most severe injury news to come out of the game: Avery Patterson, who replaced John Boyett at free safety, went out with an apparent knee injury. It doesn't look good for his return; then again, the Ducks don't talk about injuries. Erick Dargan replaced him, and would be the starter moving forward.
No matter, as long as the UO offense continues to click. The Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-12) play Stanford (8-2, 6-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 at Autzen Stadium. The Cardinal can pound the ball on the ground, and new QB Kevin Hogan provides some elusiveness, a la Mariota, a new element for Stanford.
Huff revealed his nickname for the UO quarterback: "Mariota 008," a la James Bond 007. Mariota wears No. 8 jersey.
"Marcus is very special," said Huff, who had his second consecutive outstanding game.
"There was some coverages we'd never seen before, and we finally got a hang of it," he added, of a cover-2 played by Cal. "We felt we could expose them, and we did with the vertical ball."
Added Mariota, of Huff: "Josh has done a good job of battling injuries, working through stuff. I'm happy to see it paying off for him. He's always getting open and gets big yards after catch."
Tedford said Cal did well against UO's run game, but "they made some huge plays in the pass game, which cost us. ... It is very disappointing (to lose). As they do, in the second half, they made a lot of big plays."
The Ducks knew they were in for a fight Saturday, Barner said, adding, "regardless of their record, Cal will give you their best shot."
The Oregon-Stanford game will be, essentially, for the Pac-12 North Division title. The Ducks will enter the game as the No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls, by virtue of Alabama's home loss to Texas A&M. It's likely the Ducks will be No. 2 in the BCS standings behind unbeaten Kansas State, and ahead of unbeaten Notre Dame.
"We were aware (of Alabama's loss) before we played," Mariota said. "That has no affect on how we play. That's out of our control. We focused on Cal."