BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) One small step helped No. 1 Oregon avoid one big upset.
Jeff Maehl caught a 29-yard touchdown pass for the Ducks’ only offensive touchdown, and Oregon got a stellar effort from its defense and a huge break on a missed field goal to beat California 15-13 on Saturday night.
Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio erased his 24-yard own field goal, which would have put the Golden Bears ahead by one early in the fourth quarter, by committing an illegal motion penalty. The junior then missed a 29-yard try on the next play.
Cliff Harris returned a punt 64 yards for the only touchdown in the first half for the Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-10), who wobbled on the road to the BCS title game but are still heading in the right direction.
Darron Thomas passed for 155 yards and led a final drive that chewed up the last 9:32. It was a strange sight to see the high-speed Ducks down shift into super-slow motion, but it worked to perfection. Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James took turns with the ball while Thomas milked the play clock on an 18-play, 65-yard drive.
The Bears held the nation’s most potent offense to a season-low 317 yards, but couldn’t get the Ducks’ offense off the field when they most needed a stop.
Cal defensive tackle Derrick Hill forced a fumble and recovered it in the end zone for the Bears (5-5, 3-4), who lost in Strawberry Canyon for the first time all season – but only after putting a mighty scare into their first top-ranked opponent in five years.
James rushed for a season-low 71 yards in a tentative performance by the Heisman Trophy hopeful, but Oregon’s defense shut out Cal’s offense for the final 55 minutes.
Shane Vereen rushed for 105 yards and scored a touchdown on Cal’s opening drive. Brock Mansion went 10 for 27 for 69 yards in his second career start.
The Ducks had played just three scoreless quarters all season long until Cal shut them out in the first and fourth quarters. Oregon kicker Rob Beard also missed two field goals after going 8 for 8.
Oregon, which hadn’t won by fewer than 11 points all season, will find out Sunday how its struggles will affect its position in the ranking and BCS standings, where the Ducks lead fellow unbeatens Auburn, TCU and Boise State.
But after surviving Berkeley, just two hurdles remain between the Ducks and an unbeaten regular season: a visit from Arizona on Nov. 26, followed by the Civil War at Oregon State.
The Bears began a three-game homestand to close the season on a postcard-perfect afternoon in Strawberry Canyon, but their future got much chillier by the fourth quarter. If Cal loses the 113th Big Game to No. 7 Stanford next Saturday, the Bears must beat Washington in their finale to gain bowl eligibility and a chance to avoid their first non-winning season in coach Jeff Tedford’s nine years in Berkeley.
Oregon’s offensive struggles certainly weren’t for a lack of nerve: The Ducks went for it twice on fourth down on their opening drive, but turned over the ball at midfield. After an incomplete pass, Cal handed the ball five straight times to Vereen, who barreled in from 1 yard out just 4 1/2 minutes into the first quarter.
The rest of the first half was a fast-paced game of field position until midway through the second quarter, when Harris broke down the Oregon sideline for his fourth TD punt return of the season.
Defensive end Dion Jordan took the 2-point conversion in for a score on a trick play, putting the Ducks up 8-7.
Vereen fumbled at the Cal 29 on the Bears’ first drive of the second half, and Thomas hit Maehl in stride for a score on the next play, finally showing off the quick-strike offense that has captivated college football.
But Hill’s tremendous play punished the Ducks moments later. He swatted the ball out of Thomas’ hand as the quarterback drew back to pass before recovering it in the end zone, with the play upheld by video review.
Cal failed on the 2-point conversion pass, but mounted another clock-chewing drive to the Oregon 7 moments later. That led Tavecchio’s crucial misstep.