By PETE THAMEL
EUGENE, Ore., Sept. 29 — On a weekend when college football’s national championship landscape changed drastically, it took a game on an overcast day in the Pacific Northwest to add some clarity to the national title and Heisman Trophy races. Sixth-ranked California’s thrilling 31-24 victory at No. 11 Oregon legitimized the Golden Bears (5-0, 2-0 Pacific-10 Conference) as national contenders. It also placed Cal’s star receiver, DeSean Jackson, in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race, thanks to his 161 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. But the Bears were only a yard from being possible upset victims themselves. Defensive back Marcus Ezeff forced Oregon receiver Cameron Colvin to fumble through the end zone with 16 seconds left to seal the victory for Cal. The Bears’ victory means that the road to the Pac-10 title and perhaps the national championship game will go through Berkeley, where Cal will play host to No. 1 Southern California on Nov. 10. “It kind of lets everyone know across the world that Cal can play some football,” Cal receiver Lavelle Hawkins said. “A lot of guys don’t think we’re as good as we are. This is a great, great game for us.”
The Ducks (4-1, 1-1) were inches from having the road to the national title run through Eugene. Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon recovered from throwing his first two interceptions of the season in the game’s final five minutes to lead Oregon on a hair-raising final drive. Starting with 1 minute 54 seconds remaining and no timeouts, he completed 7 of 9 passes on the drive, putting the Ducks at first-and-goal from the 5-yard line with 22 seconds left. “I was getting ready for overtime,” Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said. “From the 5? They’re too good from there.” But it ended in heartbreak instead of a Heisman moment for Dixon, who finished the day 31 of 44 for 306 yards and a touchdown. He completed a pass in the flat to Colvin, who was wide open because of a pick play, and Colvin appeared to have a clear path to the end zone. But Ezeff closed fast and knocked the ball loose as Colvin reached for the pylon instead of securing the ball and barreling forward. “I was trying to reach in,” Colvin said. “No doubt about it.”
Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said: “You can’t do that. You have to hang on to the football and break the plane.” Colvin did not know if he had scored or fumbled until he looked down and saw a referee’s marker. The play went to review. But the call stood, giving Oregon its fourth turnover of a wild fourth quarter, in which Cal scored 21 points and nearly squandered two 7-point leads. “I was sitting over there kind of having a heart attack,” Ezeff said of the wait. That final fumble shifted the game’s star to Jackson, who had 11 catches over all and scored both his touchdowns in the fourth quarter. His defining moment came on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Nate Longshore that gave Cal a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Jackson caught the ball at the 25-yard line and juked Oregon defensive back Jairus Byrd so violently that Byrd fell to the turf. Jackson high-stepped into the end zone untouched from there, even raising his arm slightly in what appeared to be a pose emulating the Heisman Trophy’s stiff-arm position.
Jackson had broken free on the game’s first play, then waved his arms in frustration when he did not get the ball. After that, it seemed as if Longshore did not miss him for the rest of the game. Longshore finished 28 of 43 for 285 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Longshore injured his ankle and missed part of a series in the fourth quarter. X-rays were negative, and he should be healthy when the Bears play host to Oregon State after a bye week.
The schedule stacks up well for Cal from this point. Their toughest game, against Southern California, is at home, and the Bears will probably be favored in all of their road games: at U.C.L.A., Arizona State, Washington and Stanford. “We’re not really going to worry about that,” Jackson said of Cal’s position as one of the teams to beat in the Pac-10. “We’re going to just keep winning football games. If it happens to be like that, we’re glad about it.” And thanks to a timely fumble and perhaps a pinch of luck, the Bears and their fans in Berkeley can dream big. “It’s crazy,” Colvin said. “That’s the game of football. It comes down to small things.”