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Thursday, October 30, 2008
Quarterbacks take center stage in Cal-Oregon rivalry


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Some might call football a game of inches, but the Oregon-California classic last year went one better. It was a game of inch.

  

With 22 seconds remaining and Oregon mounting a furious and desperate final drive, Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon hit receiver Cameron Colvin, who streaked toward the end zone and, while taking a hit from Cal safety Marcus Ezeff, extended the ball toward the pylon marking the goal line.

But the ball came loose. And then rolled through the end zone.

There was hushed moment in Autzen Stadium of "what the heck just happened?" Said ABC announcer Dan Fouts several moments after the play, "We still do not have a signal! This is unbelievable!"

After conferring, the officials ruled it a touchback and gave possession to Cal. The on-field call stood after it was reviewed.

Cal won 31-24 and became a national-title contender -- at least until the Bears lost six of their next seven games.

While the stakes are not as high this time -- last year Cal was ranked sixth and Oregon No. 11 -- the Bears and Ducks are, as usual, in the center of the Pac-10 race.

"It's almost like a rivalry game," Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. "We got those guys last year in their home and I'm sure they're thinking about payback. And we're two of the top four teams tied on top of the conference, so there's a lot of stakes riding on this."

Both have only one conference defeat. Cal controls its Rose Bowl destiny -- win out and the Bears are in. Oregon, ranked 24th in the BCS standings, is the Pac-10's only ranked team other than USC.

Since Jeff Tedford left Oregon to become Cal's head coach, he's 3-2 vs. his former mentor, Mike Bellotti. Other than a Bears blowout win in 2006, the games have been decided by four, one, three (overtime) and seven points.

But the Tedford-Bellotti story line is old news. This year, it's all about the quarterbacks.

Consider:

Masoli wants to play well in front of the family and friends attending the game. Riley is still bothered that Oregon didn't recruit him that hard.

"A little bit," he said after bringing up the topic himself. "I'm a home state kid. It's just part of the game."

Oregon was lucky to get Masoli. He played only one year at San Francisco City College but, as a full academic qualifier out of high school, was eligible to transfer to an FBS school. He chose Oregon over a number of suitors, including Auburn and Arizona, in the late spring and was mostly viewed as an insurance policy, seeing that the Ducks had five quarterbacks on the roster.

When epidemic injuries hit the position, however, Masoli was forced into early action. Yet, even with Justin Roper healthy again, Masoli has remained the starter.

"I think you can say he's the man, based on the way he's played," Bellotti said. "One of the things people forget is that in terms of time on our campus, he's the youngest and least experienced quarterback we have. So his growth has been phenomenal.

"I think what he's done is nothing short of amazing."

Tedford, on the other hand, has been slower to embrace Riley completely, even this week suggesting that Nate Longshore might play.

Riley won the job in the preseason and went 3-1. But Tedford thought the offense was starting too slowly, so he reinserted Longshore, who beat Arizona State but lost his way in the second half in the defeat at Arizona.

Riley was solid but unspectacular in the win over UCLA, and Tedford's reaction afterward has only improved to lukewarm from tepid as this week has progressed.

"I think he did a nice job of making good decisions," Tedford said. "I think one of the keys in the [UCLA] game was they had four turnovers and we didn't have any."

Tedford is big into turnvoers. In his seven years at Cal, the Bears are 31-3 when winning the turnover battle and 12-18 when losing. In Pac-10 games, the difference is even more decisive: 20-1 vs. 6-16. Cal lost the turnover battle in each of its six losses in 2007.

But Riley isn't merely a protector of the precious football. The Bears will need his mobility, which is far superior to Longshore's, this week because the Ducks pass rush is extremely potent.

Oregon averages 3.5 sacks per game, tops in the Pac-10. Ducks ends Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu are one-two in the conference in sacks with eight and six, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Cal offensive line is banged up. The only starter from the preseason who practiced Wednesday was center Alex Mack.

The strength-on-strength matchup appears to be Cal's linebacker-heavy 3-4 defense against the Ducks spread. The Bears got even more athletic at linebacker this week when speedy Mike Mohamed earned a starting nod over Eddie Young.

The 3-4 look, which Oregon hasn't played against this season, might fill running lanes better against the Ducks constant misdirection.

"I think it gives us a better chance," Tedford said. "I'm not saying it's going to shut it down. I'm hoping we can limit the big plays."

Oregon's biggest plays of late have come from Masoli's feet. In the last two games, he's rushed for 255 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries, while only passing for 189 yards.

Cal has taken note.

"He's no secret any more," Williams said. "Maybe the first couple of weeks he could sneak up on some cats, but if he breaks out this week it won't be because we didn't know he could do it."

So what happens if the Bears gang up on the Ducks ground attack, ranked fifth in the country with 279 yards per game? Said Masoli, "I think of myself as a passer first."

Oregon also can counter Cal's home field advantage with some road savvy. While nearly every other Pac-10 team -- including Cal -- has been rotten on the road, the Ducks have won three of four away from home, including last week's blowout victory over Arizona State.

"I don't think our ability to play on the road is in question and I don't think we're worried about it," Reed said.

In other words, this one could end up another game of inch.