It wasn’t pretty, but the Ducks got it done on Saturday night in front of 54,000 at Autzen Stadium, beating Cal 17-7.
Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) overcame a sluggish first half in which they turned the ball over three times, handing Cal (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) their second consecutive loss.
“Conference play is different,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “It means that much more to everybody involved. To have our guys start the way we did and be able to bounce back … it’s hard to stop a team that’s motivated from the inside out.”
Early in the first quarter, Justin Herbert threw his first interception of the season on a pass over the middle intended for Jaylon Redd; Cal defensive back Ashtyn Davis undercut the route and intercepted the pass.
Cal capitalized off the uncharacteristic Herbert turnover and scored first in the game; backup quarterback Devon Modster found Christopher Brown Jr. in the end zone to put the Golden Bears up to an early 7-0 lead.
After Oregon started moving the ball with success through the air and on the ground, Travis Dye fumbled the ball on a fourth-and-2 in Cal territory to stifle what was another promising Oregon drive.
In the second quarter, Dye again fumbled, and at that point, it seemed that Oregon couldn’t get any success on offense.
“I’ve been around Travis to know what he is, what his make-up is, how much this team means to him,” Cristobal said. “Look, I played the game, and I’ve been on that side when you get yanked. … I think that’s the worst you can do for your players. Don’t tear down your players, build them up.”
After a scoreless first half, sparks in the passing game and in season debuts for Mycah Pittman and Brenden Schooler helped the offense sustain some drives. The Ducks eventually punched it in from the 1-yard line with Cyrus Habibi-Likio.
After a critical interception by Troy Dye off a tip by Jevon Holland, Herbert found Redd on a beautifully designed play from the 1-yard line to put the Ducks up by 10. That connection extended Herbert’s nation-leading streak of 33 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Outside of the usual playmakers, two freshmen executed a huge opportunity on Saturday night to help secure the win for Oregon. Mycah Pittman caught four passes for 43 yards, many of which came in critical situations, in his much-anticipated season debut. All four of his catches were met with some of the loudest applause of the night from the Autzen Stadium crowd.
“It was tough,” Pittman said of his recovery process. “It really hurt. Football can be taken away from you so fast, so I’m so grateful for being able to heal quickly. I’m grateful for this staff that we have that got me back healthy.”
Pittman wasn’t the only freshman who broke out on Saturday night.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, after having a minimal impact through four games, picked up two sacks and a forced fumble in his fifth career game.
“I felt like a shark when there’s blood in the water,” Thibodeaux said. “It was unbelievable.”
Senior Gus Cumberlander, who had finally carved himself out a consistent role on the Oregon defense, was carted off the field in an air cast after a non-contact knee injury in the second half. Thibodeaux figures to see increased time in Cumberlander’s absence, but that wasn’t his focus.
“It was bitter,” Thibodeaux said when asked if Cumberlander’s injury was bitter-sweet. “No sweetness in it.”
In other injury news, running back CJ Verdell appeared to get his leg caught in the pile at the end of the first quarter and did not play the rest of the game. He spent the rest of the night on the sideline in a walking boot. Cristobal indicated post-game that it was an ankle injury of some sort.
The Oregon defense continued its torrid stretch, extending its streak of games allowing single-digit points to four. Holland had the aforementioned tip that led to the Dye interception and picked off another pass of his own to continue what has been an excellent sophomore campaign.
“No one flinched,” Cristobal said. “This was gonna be a dogfight, and that’s okay.”
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Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 6 to update grammatical errors.