When Cal entered Autzen Stadium on Oct. 15, it knew whom to expect patrolling the Oregon sideline. What the blue and gold did not appear to expect was how aggressive the Ducks’ defense would be in the final few minutes of a close contest. However, considering Oregon defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter served in the same position on Cal’s staff from 2017 to 2020, the Bears probably should have expected to face an all-out blitz on their last offensive play of the night.
Cal sits alone in the Pac-12 North cellar, sporting an unimpressive 1-5 record. But prior to last Friday’s tilt with the Ducks, three of the Bears’ four losses had come by a touchdown or less. So when Cal was just 7 points behind then-No. 9 Oregon, which has been the conference’s cream of the crop over the past decade and represents the only legitimate chance the Pac-12 has at reaching the College Football Playoff this season, a cautious sense of optimism was almost palpable.
The odds were certainly not in the blue and gold’s favor — the Bears have not topped the Ducks in Eugene since 2007. Yet, despite those odds, Cal’s offense orchestrated a clutch 73-yard drive deep into Oregon territory. On fourth-and-goal with less than five ticks left on the clock, the Bears stood 2 yards away from the end zone.
Both sides were faced with a choice: be aggressive or play it safe.
The Ducks could either sit in a zone defense and try to prevent a touchdown pass or bring the house on an all-out blitz to hurry a throw from Cal quarterback Chase Garbers. Given that the Bears were so close to the end zone and didn’t have another down (or time) to work with, it was unlikely that they would try to throw it underneath. Essentially, Oregon knew that it would not have to come up and make a tackle in the flat because Cal had to throw it into the end zone.
The Bears, too, could either maximize how many receivers were in the end zone or provide max protection for Garbers in the case that the Ducks brought a blitz.
For DeRuyter, who boasted a history of ferocious defenses at Cal, opting for the blitz was a no-brainer. Not to mention that the Ducks could now unleash junior edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who had been suspended from playing in the first half due to a targeting penalty against Stanford.
Despite familiarity with DeRuyter and Thibodeaux’s return, Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave also decided to be aggressive. To provide some context, the Bears’ wide receivers were having trouble gaining separation from the defense throughout the night. Knowing this, Musgrave sent senior running back Christopher Brooks and redshirt senior tight end Jake Tonges out as pass-catching options on the play while stacking three receivers on the right side — leaving Garbers alone from shotgun to face an all-out blitz behind just his offensive line.
Oregon brought a disguised blitz, switching its inside linebackers Noah Sewell and Nate Heaukulani in a pre-snap motion to slightly hide Sewell behind Heaukulani. With the Bears’ five interior offensive linemen preoccupied with blocking the Ducks’ four defensive linemen and a blitzing Heaukulani, two holes opened up down the middle. This allowed Sewell to blast through the gap while safety Verone McKinley III also blitzed Garbers up the middle.
Garbers, who struggled with the pressure all night long, flushed out to his right side. In doing so, he removed all possibility of a throw to the left side of the field. This effectively removed Brooks and Tonges from the play, and it also prevented senior receiver Nikko Remigio — who was running a crossing route to the left — from being a viable target. Suddenly, Garbers’ number of options went from five to just two: Kekoa Crawford and Trevon Clark.
As he moved right to avoid the blitz up the middle, Garbers was met by none other than Thibodeaux, who had blown past Cal’s right tackle. Oregon’s All-American wreaked havoc all game long, posting 11 pressures and eight quarterback hits in just one half of play. This play was no different, as Thibodeaux’s outstretched reach forced Garbers to toss up a limp prayer.
The ball fell somewhere between Crawford and Clark in no man’s land. Crawford ran a shallow out route just shy of the goal line, while Clark, who ran a curl route in the back of the end zone, slipped and fell. It is still unclear who the intended target was on the play. Either way, neither player had a chance at Garbers’ rushed throw.
Both the Bears and the Ducks chose to be aggressive. But ultimately, it was Oregon’s almost-reckless aggression on a play that could have dashed its playoff hopes and Thibodeaux’s speed that saved the Ducks from a second straight loss to Cal.