BERKELEY — Justin Herbert and the 19th-ranked Oregon Ducks served as a rude measuring stick for No. 24 Cal on Saturday night.
The Golden Bears didn’t measure up.
For the second year in a row, a 3-0 non-conference start by Cal didn’t translate in the Pac-12 opener. Cal’s young quarterbacks coughed up five turnovers — two of them returned for touchdowns — and the Bears could not overcome Oregon’s speed and precision.
“It starts with turnovers,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “You can’t turn the ball over that many times against a team like that. We moved the ball well at times, and had turnovers and missed opportunities.”
Wilcox also was critical of the Bears’ run defense, which allowed a 45-yard run by Travis Dye and a 74-yard dash by CJ Verdell. It added up to a disappointing night.
“It hurts,” Wilcox said. “It feels like you got kicked in the gut. It sucks. But there’s no other way to do it. Come back on Monday and go to work.”
Herbert, who threw six touchdown passes here as a freshman two years ago in a Cal shootout victory over the Ducks, was nearly perfect in the first half on Saturday, passing for 173 yards and a pair of TDs as Oregon stormed to a 28-10 lead. He didn’t have to throw much the rest of the way, finishing 16 for 22 for 225 yards without a turnover.
Wilcox called him one of the best quarterbacks he’s seen since be began college coaching.
The Ducks (4-1, 1-1) showed they had put behind them the late-game collapse they experienced a week earlier against Stanford. Now it will be the Bears’ turn to demonstrate that 2018 isn’t 2017, when they went 2-7 in Pac-12 play and missed out on a bowl game.
Three takeaways from the Bears’ first defeat of the season:
1) Mistakes sabotaged Cal’s quarterback play.
Chase Garbers started for the third week in a row and Brandon McIlwain played his tag-team role off the bench. There were good moments, especially by McIlwain, whose 123 rushing yards were the most by a Cal quarterback since Joe Kapp had 130 against Oregon in 1958. After going 1 for 6 passing in the first half, he finished with 128 yards through the air and a touchdown.
But McIlwain also turned the ball over three times, once on a fumble that Lamar Winston Jr. returned 61 yards for a touchdown to make it 28-10 late in the first half, and twice on interceptions, including one returned 32 yards for a TD by Ugochukwu Amadi for a score with 3 minutes left in the game.
Garbers threw a pair of interceptions and wound 4 for 9 for just 44 yards.
Both quarterbacks accepted the defeat as a chance to grow from their mistakes. “You can’t get down about anything,” McIlwain said. “You need to use the good things as momentum and the bad things as learning opportunities.”
2) The run game came alive.
Oregon entered the game ranked No. 3 nationally in fewest rushing yards allowed per play (2.13) and No. 4 against rushing yards per game (75.5), but the Bears thrashed those numbers.
Cal rushed for 241 yards on 5.9 yards per clip. McIlwain had 123 of those, but running back Patrick Laird also finally found some rhythm after averaging 2.9 yards per carry through three games.
Laird ran for 92 yards at 5.1 yards per attempt and scored on a 10-yard run.
3) Where do the Bears go from here?
Well, to Arizona next week to face the Wildcats, who fell to 2-3 after a home loss to USC. There were no signs of defeat among Cal’s players after this one.
“I expect us to fight,” McIlwain said. “ We pride ourselves on being smart and tough. That’s being smart about fixing our mistakes and continue to be tough about never stop fighting.”
“I think we’ll respond very well. I think we’ll be hungry moving forward, as we should be,” Garbers added. “We’re looking forward to Arizona and I think we’re going to bounce back really well from this.”