BERKELEY, Calif. -- The narrative trajectory of a national championship run is rarely a straight line. There are zigs and zags even during an undefeated season. Some games are prettier than others. Sometimes the biggest statements are made in unexpected ways. It's just the way college football is.
So perhaps it's fitting that the offensive juggernaut that is top-ranked Oregon made its most powerful statement on its worst night of the season by not scoring. The flashy Ducks, who are all about hanging half-a-hundred on foes with lightning-quick drives that make bathroom breaks risky for fans, became yeomanlike in their final possession of a 15-13 victory over California, slowing the pace, grinding out first downs and burning the clock.
Oregon, clinging to a two-point lead, took over at its 20-yard line with 9:25 left in the game, and 18 plays later -- 17 runs -- quarterback Darron Thomas took a knee at the Bears’ 15-yard line. Game over. Ducks survive.
It was the Ducks’ only drive of the night of more than 46 yards. But somewhere Woody Hayes is smiling.
"Coach [Chip] Kelly told us in the huddle before we went out there that this was going to be the drive of the year; this was going to be the drive we remember," Thomas said. "Exactly what he told us was, 'This is going to be the drive you tell your family about 30 years from now.'"
Oregon is 10-0. If they win three more games -- two regular season and the national title game -- they will have plenty to tell their children and grandchildren about.
But this was not the Ducks we've seen this season, at least offensively. They looked vulnerable. They were getting whipped at the line of scrimmage. California was penetrating up front and blanketing Ducks' receivers in the secondary with man-coverage -- even after losing starting cornerbacks Darian Hagan and Marc Anthony to injury.
"It was ripe for the upset," Cal safety Chris Conte said. "We knew that if we came out and executed, this team was very beatable. Watching film,we saw their people making mistakes. We knew if we held them to no big plays, we'd be right in this game. We should have won."
That was a popular theme among the Cal players. But it also is curious that a team that can play with top-ranked Oregon can lose by 28 to Oregon State, the Beavers' only win in their past four games.
Oregon was held to a season-low 317 yards. But it made four of its eight successful third-down conversions on the final drive.
And after 400 words, perhaps we should take note of the Ducks' defense. It held the Bears to just 193 yards, 49 of which came on their first possession, when they took a 7-0 lead after the Ducks failed on one of their six fourth-down conversion attempts (they made four).
"You see the true character of a team when it's not 50-7 or whatever," defensive tackle Brandon Bair said. "It's awesome to see that if our offense struggles, our defense can step up."
The Ducks' defense was certainly helped by the absence of a Cal passing game. Quarterback Brock Mansion, making his second start since Kevin Riley went down with a season-ending knee injury, completed 10 of 28 passes for 69 yards. He didn't throw an interception, and he made a couple of nice passes, but it was clear that running back Shane Vereen, who rushed for 112 yards on 26 carries, was the Bears' only offensive weapon.
Oregon didn't help itself much. It missed two field goals; the first kicker Rob Beard has missed this season. It had eight penalties for 62 yards. And Thomas gifted the Bears a TD when he fumbled into the end zone in the third quarter while cocking to throw, and nose tackle Derrick Hill recovered for a touchdown.
For the first time this year, Oregon was challenged well into the fourth quarter. It was a new experience. Kelly, however, said his team never showed any signs of tightness, and his players agreed.
"We were never worried or thinking about losing," Thomas said. "We never thought about losing."
As for style points, none of the Ducks seemed too concerned that the judges -- the pollsters, the computers, the BCS standings -- might dock them for failing to win in their typical fancypants manner.
"At the end of the season, they are not going to say, 'How many points did they beat Cal by?'" said running back LaMichael James, who finished with 91 yards on 29 carries.
This week, though, they are going to ask about James. The Heisman Trophy candidate had to be helped off the field in the game's waning moments. Afterward, he was wearing a boot on his left foot and was on crutches.
"I'm good," he said. "I'll be at practice next week."
The Ducks are off until Arizona visits Autzen Stadium on Nov. 26. They are moving into territory that the program and long-suffering fan base have never experienced before.
So forgive Kelly and his players for not beating themselves up for winning ugly.
"A win's a win," Kelly said. "We're happy. We're 10-0."