BERKELEY, Calif. -- There were some nerves. There was some trepidation. As Chip Kelly put it, there was some fear that “Coach Kelly’s head might fall off.”
Yes, the Oregon players knew what happened to No. 1 Alabama before they took the field Saturday night against California. And when Kelly gathered the team around for the final meeting, he could feel the tension.
So he broke it, and as a team they talked about it.
“Everyone has a phone,” Kelly said following his team’s 59-17 victory over the Bears at Memorial Stadium. “They were all looking around, so I said, ‘I’ll tell you, Alabama lost.’ I think people were afraid to talk about it. Just because they won or lost shouldn’t affect us. I felt like I had to address it so they didn’t know if we talk about it or not talk about it. I didn’t want them worried that Coach Kelly’s head would fall off if we talk about it. I told them and said, ‘Hey, they lost, what does that have to do with us?’
“The outcome of that game shouldn’t affect us. Our deal is did we have a good Monday? Yes. Did we have a good Tuesday? Yes. Did we have a good Wednesday? Yes. That’s what’s going to help us play well tonight, not the fact that somebody else in another part of the country lost a football game.”
Said linebacker Michael Clay: “It was like walking on egg shells. And when he addressed it, it was like a huge weight off of our shoulders. It was very freeing.”
And for quarterback Marcus Mariota, it served as both ice-breaker and crucial reminder.
“You could feel the relief,” he said. “It was kind of a tense thing because you already have so much stuff on your mind. It really reminded us that every game counts and we have to understand that other games don’t affect us and we have to take care of our own business.”
And Mariota did just that. The redshirt freshman matched an Oregon record by tossing six touchdowns on 27-of-34 passing for 377 yards with no interceptions.
With the Bears selling out to stop the run, the Pac-12’s top rushing team managed just 180 yards on the ground. But Mariota picked up the slack, finding Josh Huff three times for scores and tight end Colt Lyerla twice for touchdowns.
“He’s a special player,” Kelly said of his quarterback. “He keeps getting better and better. They did some things today where we felt like they were going to try to take away the run game and play some zone coverage on us. He’s got to do a good job figuring out what they are in, and it seemed like he was on target and making the right reads and making good decisions. You keep seeing him better and better each week.”
So instead of blowing a team out in the first 30 minutes, it took Oregon 45 against a Cal squad that challenged an injury-depleted Oregon defensive line. Isi Sofele rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown against a front that -- at one time -- featured three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.
“Normally, Oregon backs break for 75-yard runs, but it wasn’t happening today,” said Cal linebacker Chris McCain. “I felt like defensively we did pretty well to stop their run, but the passes got to us.”
None bigger than Mariota’s 35-yard touchdown to Huff midway through the third quarter. Cal had narrowed the gap to 24-17 in early in the third quarter. A few possessions later, Allan Bridgford was intercepted by Boseko Lokombo at the Cal 35. On the next play, Mariota connected with Huff to put Oregon ahead 31-17.
“I thought that two-play sequence might have been the game-changing part of it,” Kelly said. “It was kind of a back-and-forth game. I felt like we got some distance.”
From there, Oregon scored four more second-half touchdowns. And as the Bears were forced to go to the air, the young defensive line started to get some pressure up front.
“You hear people talk about, ‘Well, we’re young.’ Too bad, you gotta go,” Kelly said. “We’ve recruited kids and told them they’ll have an opportunity to play. They’ve prepared for it. ... They don’t act like young guys, and that’s something we’re looking for. I think this young group is more mature than any young group I’ve been around.”