Mariota leads Ducks past Cal, but Oregon's defensive questions linger
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In its hallmark overwhelming style, Oregon blew past Cal on Friday night 59-41 in the first college football game played at Levi’s Stadium. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota continued his sparkling Heisman Trophy campaign, throwing for 326 yards and five touchdowns.
Here’s what we learned.
1. As the game trudged on, we can’t say we really learned much about Oregon
The Ducks still project to be a team that’s going to linger on the cusp of making the four-team college football playoff. They have a marquee victory over Michigan State, a bad home loss to Arizona and it’s still a stretch to call them one of the four best teams in the country. Cal is a dynamic offensive team, but Oregon giving up 41 points to the Bears certainly didn’t give it any more credibility as a well-rounded team.
Oregon can score with anyone, and it showed that again on Friday night. Nothing proved it better than a three-play, 60-yard drive that gave the Ducks a 38-28 lead in the final minute of the first half.
Cal looked as if it decided tackling was optional, especially on Charles Nelson’s 58-yard touchdown return in the third quarter. Cal missed five tackles on the play, as its ole defense summed up the spirit of the night.
Oregon put forth some porous defense of its own, making this game unlikely to have helped them in the eyes of the playoff committee. We expect Oregon to score bushels of points. That’s a given at this juncture. It’s the Ducks' ability to stop people that everyone is curious about. Jared Goff’s 360 passing yards and the generally flat defensive performance didn’t give off an air of dominance.
But at this point in the year, injuries and attrition are natural. Oregon needed to be sharper.
2. Mariota’s streak of consecutive passes without an interception this season ended at 253
Cal’s Stefan McClure snared a twice-tipped pass in the end zone in the second quarter, a play that actually seemed important at the time as Oregon led just 31-28.
But that blemish shouldn’t take away from Mariota’s overall performance. He finished the game with 18 completions in 30 attempts en route to becoming the school's all-time leading passer.
It was a good night for Mariota to look sharp, as 14 NFL scouts were in attendance. NFL teams tend to come out in big numbers for weeknight games, and Mariota performed well in front of teams like the Dolphins, Bills and the Jets, all of which could be in the market for a quarterback.
Mariota did nothing to diminish his status as one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy. He has 24 touchdown passes, just one interception and also has rushed for five scores. If Mariota doesn’t reach New York as a Heisman finalist this year, it would be a shock.
3. At Cal home football games, there’s an area above Memorial Stadium known as Tightwad Hill
Over the years, it’s become a place for students gather and occasionally smoke a bit of marijuana during games. It’s one of those endearing traditions in college football that gives the stadium a cool tie to campus. And after seeing the sterile atmosphere, empty seats and surplus of Oregon fans at Levi’s Stadium on Friday night, it was embarrassing for Cal that it didn’t play this game at home. Instead, it took a check and alienated local fans, who had to drive 43 miles through a thicket of Bay Area traffic to see a so-called “home” game.
It would be hard to blame Cal coach Sonny Dykes if he’s steamed at his bosses for having this game at Levi’s. Especially because Cal played competitively for a half and got no juice from the crowd. The atmosphere here was about as intimidating as a yoga instructor. Cal conceded home-field advantage to Oregon and lost any sense of intimacy and atmosphere that goes along with playing at home. On television, the game looked awful. In person, the cheers were bigger for the Ducks. When you get only a handful of home football games every year, why would you give up the most prominent one?
Makes you wonder if some of that second-hand smoke floating its way around Cal impacted the administrators’ decision making.