EUGENE, Oregon — The Ducks rebounded from a loss with a resounding 45-24 win over Cal on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Oregon’s offense nearly doubled the production of the Bear offense 459-263, but it could not have been done without the defense. Amid injuries and ejections, the Ducks battled to win their first Pac-12 game of the year.
The Ducks defense led the way with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Oregon allowed a total of eight rushing yards on 29 carries for California.
“Our defense did a great job,” said head coach Willie Taggart. “We all see each game our defense is getting better and better. They did a good job of stopping the run, which is always important making a team one-dimensional. It was good to see our defense play the way they did.”
Justin Herbert and Royce Freeman both exited the game in the first half of the game and did not return. Both players had their shoulder area examined.
UO rushed for 328 rushing yards. Oddly, it wasn’t even enough for a season-high after their 348-yard Week 1 performance vs Southern Utah. Kani Benoit highlighted the charge with 138 rushing yards on 18 carries. Tony Brooks-James added 76 on 16 carries.
“It was really good to see our defense get the tackles for loss and the sacks,” Taggart said. “It was really good to see our offense run the football like we did. That was an emphasis for us going into the game. It was good to see our guys respond on both sides of the ball.”
After taking the ASU loss personally, Oregon’s offensive line stepped up in a major way when they were needed most.
“I was really proud of those guys,” Taggart replied. “I challenged them this past Sunday to come out and play up to their potential because we didn’t do that the week before. Our guys took that as a challenge and they did a great job. Anytime you can rush for 300 yards, that’s pretty impressive. It’s great to see from our football team.”
Former Junction City product and Oregon defensive back (‘96-’99) Justin Wilcox tried to overcome a slow start but it was too much for his team with UO’s defense playing at an elite level on Saturday.
The Duck offense started quickly with three points from Aidan Schneider. Three minutes later, Justin Herbert connected with Brenden Schooler for a 37-yard tally, 10-0. It was the second touchdown reception in Schooler’s young career.
Schooler led the Oregon receivers with his 37 yards on that one catch.
Following yet another Cal punt (7), Herbert led the offense 53 yards on eight plays in 3:19 off the clock. He capped the drive with a gritty 7-yard run to the house.
“That’s the easy thing for people to say,” said Taggart. “Justin could have dropped back and got hurt. We would have found something else to blame it on. It’s unfortunate that he got hurt.”
Before the Golden Bears’ defense knew what hit them, it was 17-0 Oregon in the first quarter. Yet, Herbert injured his shoulder on the scoring-plunge. He headed to the locker room before the second quarter and never returned.
“There are no updates right now,” said Taggart. “I’m sure I’ll find out more after this. I haven’t talked to the doctor yet about those guys. We just met with the team.”
Herbert was roasting before leaving prematurely, completing 7-of-8 passes for 86 yards and a TD. His lone rush went for seven yards and a tally, but it also cost him the rest of his evening and possibly the season.
Moments earlier, running back Royce Freeman went down with an apparent shoulder injury. He was on fire to start too, rushing for 51 yards on eight carries (8.5 YPC) with a long of 20 yards. However, he would not return to the field.
The Ducks had three other starters go down in the first half and starting safety Tyree Robinson was ejected after his targeting penalty. Dillon Mitchell, Kaulana Apelu, and Jake Pisarcik were all banged up in the first 30 minutes.
Ross Bowers hooked up with Jordan Veasy for Cal’s first points, 17-7, before halftime. The Ducks’ defense held the Bears to 80 total yards, including eight rush yards in the first half.
“When you can rush for 300 yards and hold an opponent to eight yards, pretty impressive,” Taggart said proudly.
Senior Taylor Alie led the team down the field for a TD to open the second half. Following the 1-yard plunge by Kani Benoit, 24-7, Bowers and Cal answered right back.
He found his receiver Kanawai Noa for a 75-yard touchdown strike, 24-14, on the first play of their possession.
Noa was impressive with seven catches for 126 yards and his score. No other receiver had more than 44 yards for either team.
After a Cal field goal, Benoit took it 68 yards for his second tally of the night and eighth touchdown of the season. With the score, Oregon doubled their lead, 31-17, midway through the fourth quarter. Benoit is now second in the nation in rushing touchdowns for running backs, behind only his teammate Royce Freeman.
“It was huge,” said Taggart in reference to Benoit’s performance. “Most people around here wouldn’t expect any less out of Kani. He’s been doing that all year for us. He’s been doing that for awhile around here. It was great for Kani to come in and play the way he did and Tony to come in and do the things he did.”
Linebacker Justin Hollins was all over the field, registering six tackles, two sacks, 1.5 TFL and a huge forced fumble in the win. He now has four sacks on the season. Hollins’ sack and forced fumble placed Oregon’s on Cal’s 3-yard-line.
The strip sack resulted in Tony Brooks-James’ second score of the drive. After a holding penalty dismissed his first, TBJ battled back for a 5-yard tally and a 21-point Oregon advantage 38-17.
“We came here to be the best running backs in the country,” said Brooks-James. “If you can’t stop it, you can’t stop it.”
After losing six starters in total, Oregon backup quarterback Taylor Alie exited the contest and did not return after the scoring drive.
“That was a big team win,” said the UO head man. “Considering all the injuries, I’ve never been apart of that many, whew. Crazy. But the good Lord doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle. We’ll find a way, which we did.”
Replacing Alie, freshman Braxton Burmeister made his first collegiate appearance.
“We wanted to show a team that plays for one another,” Taggart stated about his team rising above the injuries. “And we’re seeing that out there with our guys. No matter what. Guys go down, nobody put their head down. The next guy steps up. We always talk about that. You have to be ready. If you’re not, that’s on you. Guys are stepping up.”
Before he departed, Alie was 9-of-13 for 41 passing yards. He rushed for 17 yards on three carries.
“Taylor did a good job for us, then he went down,” Taggart said after the win. “Braxton came in and did a good job for us.”
Garbage time was good to the Bears, as Bowers boosted his stats when he found Vic Wharton III from 28 yards out to cut the Cal deficit to 14 points, 38-24.
The Cal quarterback entered the contest with more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (6). Yet, he did not throw one against Oregon. Bowers completed 23-of-41 attempts for 255 yards and three TDs.
Bear running back Patrick Laird was held to 28 yards on 11 carries.
A turnover on downs placed the Ducks inside the 25-yard line. Freshman Darrian Felix scampered in for 11 yards, as Oregon boosted their lead to 45-24. It was his first collegiate score. Felix concluded with 27 yards on five carries.
Troy Dye led the defensive charge, tying for a game-high with nine tackles. He recorded a sack and 2.5 TFL for the Ducks.
Captain Henry Mondeaux exploded for four tackles, two TFL and two sacks.
True freshman Jordon Scott added a sack of his own in the demolition. Jalen Jelks, Ugo Amadi, and Jonah Moi all tallied 0.5 sacks.
Jordan Kunaszyk led Cal with nine tackles, five solos.
Next up for Oregon (4-1) is a clash with unbeaten No. 16 Washington State (5-0, 2-0) at Autzen Stadium next Saturday. The Ducks were rolled in Pullman last season 51-33 and haven’t beaten WSU since 2014. Kickoff time is TBD.