BERKELEY, Calif. -- Memorial Stadium was a quagmire even before kickoff, and the synthetic turf looked more like a duck-friendly marsh by halftime. Coaches Jeff Tedford and Mike Bellotti both thought it was the worst rain they'd seen in many years at California.
Such foul conditions would be just a regular Saturday at Oregon, yet the Golden Bears splashed around in all that water much more adeptly than the 24th-ranked Ducks, who made enough big mistakes to lose their spot atop the Pac-10 standings.
Marcus Ezeff recovered Oregon's fumble on a punt return to set up Shane Vereen's 2-yard touchdown run with 8:57 to play, and Cal persevered through the rain for a 26-16 victory to set up a showdown with Southern California next week.
Cal (6-2, 4-1 Pac-10) won this lively rivalry game for the fourth time in five meetings despite floundering on offense for most of the final three quarters. Two Ducks turnovers allowed the Bears to make mercifully short scoring drives -- about the only kind possible in such awful weather.
"Now that's a real football game," said Cal defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who had 10 tackles and a sack. "If you don't love being on a field like that, you don't love football. Everything about the rain and the weather fired us up."
Cal's big plays on defense and special teams decided it. Linebacker Worrell Williams returned an interception 50 yards to the Oregon 3 to set up Nyan Boateng's TD catch 18 seconds before halftime, and Jairus Byrd's fumble on a fair catch attempt doomed Oregon's otherwise solid defense again.
Throw in a safety on a horrible punt snap, a bobbled extra-point hold and a missed field goal, and the Ducks (6-3, 4-2) knew the blame for this wasted opportunity rested only on their own rain-soaked shoulder pads.
"It was a bad day to play football. It was a bad field to play football," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "There was standing water on the field, and in this day and age, that's unheard of. ... We got five takeaways in the first half, and other than the first one, we weren't able to capitalize. Give Cal credit. They stymied us at the line of scrimmage."
Both teams made mistakes caused by the wet balls and slick field. Oregon long snapper Zach Taylor launched a punt snap 38 yards out of bounds for a safety in the first quarter, while Cal's Nate Longshore fumbled the snap on a field-goal attempt.
But Longshore also stepped in for injured Kevin Riley and passed for 136 yards for the Bears, who stayed in the thick of the conference race with their fourth win in their five games.
Tedford has kept Longshore on equal footing with Riley this season, changing starters twice and splitting first-team practice snaps between the two quarterbacks despite Riley's superior game play. The coach felt his patience with Longshore was justified when Riley went down.
"You need two quality quarterbacks, and you just can't say enough about those guys," Tedford said. "They're always out there competing and supporting each other. ... Nate is a veteran. He's been in a lot of games. Sure, coming off the bench is a bit new for him, but it was no big deal."
Riley incurred a concussion on a vicious hit when he failed to slide for a first down late in the first quarter, but the oft-booed Longshore got the home crowd on his side with a steady, unspectacular performance. Jeremy Ross caught an early TD pass from Riley, while Jahvid Best rushed for 93 yards, but also had two of Cal's four fumbles.
"You've just got to focus when it's like that," said Best, who's wearing a brace on his wrist that makes it difficult to hold on to the ball. "It was like one big puddle out there sometimes."
Except for a few impressive plays early in each half, Cal's defense bottled up Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. The Bay Area native rushed for 97 yards but passed for just 44 in a 7-for-21 performance, and Jeremiah Johnson rushed for 117 yards and a score.
"We're Ducks, so we're used to that kind of weather," Johnson said. "It really didn't matter. ... We just couldn't put it together on offense. In the second half, we came up kind of strong, but the dropped punt hurt us."
Oregon hadn't fumbled despite the storm until Byrd flubbed his attempt to make a fair catch on a punt inside the Ducks 10 with 10:07 left.
Cal linebacker Matt Russi fell on the ball, but Ezeff came out of the pile with his latest game-changing play in this rivalry. Ezeff also forced Oregon receiver Cameron Colvin's last-second fumble through the end zone in the Bears' win at Eugene last year.
After Ezeff's fumble recovery, Vereen punched it in. Masoli and fellow sophomore Justin Roper both failed to lead an Oregon scoring drive in the final minutes, with Roper throwing the final incompletion from midfield with 38 seconds to play.