Mostly whole for the first time this season, the Cal football team showed what it could be in a 21-17 victory over No. 21 Oregon on Saturday evening at Memorial Stadium.
Handicapped for three weeks by issues related to COVID-19, the Bears made timely plays on offense, game-changing plays on defense and no bonehead plays on special teams to win for the first time.
“It feels great to win. That’s why we all do this, for this feeling right here,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “We’ve’ felt like the past couple weeks we’ve played well enough for much of the game to win. We just made too many mistakes.
“I think we can play even better.”
Picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North, Cal (1-3) was impacted in each of its first three games by the coronavirus. The Bears had their opening game scratched because they had no available defensive linemen. The past two weeks, they were without three starters on the offensive.
Senior linebacker Kuony Deng, who forced two fourth-quarter fumbles by the Ducks that clinched the victory, said the Bears never lost faith.
“There has been so much stuff, so many circumstances that have made things tough for us, but we understood that we have a really good football team,” he said.
Cal plays next Saturday at Washington State, then has one more game, against an opponent TBD. With wins in both, the Bears will be bowl eligible.
There has not been any talk about playing in a bowl game, Wilcox said.
“We want to play as many as we possibly can,” he said. “But we don’t spend a lot of time on what-ifs and different scenarios.”
Here are takeaways from the Bears’ big win:
Goode is great: Cal’s defense pitched a second-half shutout against the Ducks (3-2), who led 17-14 at the break and entered the game leading the Pac-12 in scoring at 38.5 points per game.
There were a lot of significant contributors on defense, including Deng, who created the two late takeaways and linebacker Braxten Croteau, who missed the previous two games while in quarantine. Croteau threw running back CJ Verdell for a one-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 play from the Cal 18 early in the fourth quarter.
No one was more impactful than Cameron Goode, the senior outside linebacker who had 3 1/2 tackles for loss among his seven tackles, recovered a fumble and nearly picked off a pass.
“He makes my my job easier I only have to set the edge for a second because Cam already tackled the guy,” Croteau said. “Insane player. He’s going to play on Sunday.”
“He might be playing the best football of his career — not might, he is,” Wilcox said. “And that’s a great sign for a senior.”
Remigio comes alive: Junior receiver Nikko Remigio was barely part of the Cal offense the first three games. Despite being the Bears’ top returning pass catcher, he had just four receptions and nine yards entering play Saturday. He also fumbled away a punt last week that helped Stanford claim a 24-23 victory in the Big Game.
But Remigio was everywhere against the Ducks. He caught six passes for 81 yards, including the 28-yard touchdown pass from Garbers on a beautiful play fake that gave the Bears the 21-17 lead with 5:14 left in the third quarter.
He also had four punt returns for 40 yards (not counting a 43-yarder that was nullified by a penalty) and he made the last big play of the game by the offense with a 5-yard catch on a fourth-and-3 slant that kept the ball out of Oregon’s hands until the final two minutes.
“It means a lot, especially after having a week like last week. Not playing my best game and having some costly mistakes,” Remigio said. “Just to come back this week and regain the trust of my coaches and teammates, it was a great feeling.”
Hiding the field goal unit: After two weeks of sloppy football, the Bears played a clean game. There were no gaffes by the kicking units, which last week had a field goal and PAT blocked and the week before had a punt snuffed.
Clearly, Wilcox still doesn’t have a lot of faith in his kicking team. Cal was leading 21-17 with 2:06 to play and had a chance to go ahead by 7. But instead of trying a field goal on fourth-and-5 at the Oregon 25, Wilcox kept his kicking unit on the sideline.
The Bears failed to convert — Garber’s pass fell incomplete, giving Oregon a chance to win. The Ducks drove to Cal’s 38, where they had a first down with 52 seconds on the clock and timeout in hand.
That’s when Deng jarred the ball loose from Oregon receiver Johnny Johnson after a short gain. Cal’s Muelu Iosefa recovered the fumble.
“The turnovers, I think you could point to and say that’s the difference,” Wilcox said. “The two fourth-quarter turnovers the defense caused, and the offense protecting the ball like they did . . . that was awesome.”