JOHN HUNT The Oregonian Staff
EUGENE -- As football problems go, Oregon has a good one: The Ducks have had trouble covering a few kicks, partly because they kick off so much. Oregon kicked off 10 times last week in its rout (at least in the second half) of Stanford, and on three of those, the Cardinal got good returns, taking advantage of low kicks, cover men who had difficulty shedding blocks and safeties who couldn't keep the ball contained. The Ducks got away with it at Stanford, but this week is different. Not only are the stakes so much higher and the game likely to be so much closer, but the returners are so much better. "They have three guys on their team who are better than anyone we've faced all year -- three of them," Oregon special teams coach Tom Osborne said.
The California Golden Bears have DeSean Jackson returning punts. He's already returned six for touchdowns in his career -- a school and conference record -- including a 65-yarder against Oregon last season, when he ran all the way across the field, reversed and ran untouched into the end zone. They have Lavelle Hawkins and Jahvid Best returning kickoffs. Hawkins ran one back all the way against Louisiana Tech two weeks ago, and Best is a freshman with "great, great speed," according to Osborne. Gone are the days when Oregon simply could power the ball through the end zone. A rule change effective this season moved the ball back five yards to the 30-yard line for kickoffs, and if you're not teeing it up in the desert, it probably will be returned. The Ducks have had issues the other way, too. Oregon punt returner Andiel Brown had to be yanked from the Stanford game, in favor of Derrick Jones and Aaron Pflugrad, because of two poor decisions on balls that should have been fair caught. Brown, who said he hasn't signaled for a fair catch in his life, got an earful from coach Mike Bellotti on the sideline, but this week Bellotti made a point to ensure everyone that he is not changing punt returners.
"He's fearless, he catches everything, and that's awesome," Bellotti said. "But there are choices. Discretion becoming the better part of valor has to come into the equation at some point. I need to temper his courage a little bit with knowledge and protection of the football." And Cal has cause for concern when it kicks off to the Ducks. The Bears are allowing 37.2 yards per return, ninth in the Pac-10, and the Ducks have the conference's leading kick returner in Jonathan Stewart (31.9 yards per return). Four times this season, Oregon would have had a kickoff return touchdown if not for tackles made by the kicker. "We are going to have to get better there," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's the one that gets to the 50-yard line that drives you crazy a little bit." In a game that figures to be close in the end, any special teams breakdowns will be magnified.