Friday, November 10, 2006

SF Chronicle: Cal Resists "What Ifs" as Team is Reluctant to Look Back or Too Far Forward

Coach Jeff Tedford probably saved Cal's season when, immediately following its opening-game loss to Tennessee, he preached the "one-day, one-week, one-game-at-a-time" theory that has become the Bears' theme song. Since then, it's been impossible to get Tedford to look ahead, but what about looking back? "I don't have time to think about stuff like that," he said. "I've got time only to think about the immediate future." The past is so interesting, however, it's difficult to avoid giving it a little thought. There have been a number of decisions that have shaped Cal's successful season. Here's a look at how this year could have changed if different conclusions would have been reached:

-- What if Tedford had gone with a different quarterback? Nate Longshore, who is in the hunt for the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top quarterback, wasn't always so popular among outsiders. There was a fierce competition for the starting spot during training camp, and after the Tennessee loss, there was an unfair clamoring for a switch at the position.

"That's a stupid question," Longshore said. "I'm not going to answer that." No one at Cal would even acknowledge the question, and there's no way to tell what would have happened with Steve Levy or Joe Ayoob at quarterback. A simulation of Cal's season on EA Sports NCAA Football video game predicted that a Longshore-led team would have gone 10-3, Ayoob's group 9-4 and Levy's 5-7 (no bowl game for the Levy team).

-- What if the training staff would have deemed Marshawn Lynch unavailable to play with his ankle sprains? Despite playing the entire season hurt, Lynch leads the Pac-10 in rushing, all-purpose yards and scoring. He almost single-handedly led the offense against Washington State and Washington. "You're looking at the Heisman winner right there," receiver Robert Jordan said, pointing at Lynch. As much confidence as the Bears have in backups Justin Forsett and Marcus O'Keith, no one in the conference and possibly the nation is as good as Lynch, and it's probably safe to say that Cal would have at least one more loss had he not been in the backfield.

-- What if Washington would have gone for a two-point conversion after cutting the Cal lead to one point with a last-second Hail Mary? There haven't been many season-defining decisions during games, because the Bears have won their eight games by an average of nearly 27 points. Washington, however, gave Cal its biggest scare and could have gone for the win at the end of regulation. "I never thought they'd do that, because coach (Tyrone) Willingham plays it the way you're supposed to play," Longshore said. "But they had the momentum, so it might have made for the most interesting three-yard play of the season." Cal's defense has been good in short-yardage and red-zone situations. The unit has allowed opponents to score touchdowns on fewer than half of their 24 trips into the red zone and convert 32 percent of third-down chances. "We would have stopped them," defensive end Cody Jones said, "so we wouldn't have even had to go into overtime."

-- What if left tackle Andrew Cameron had not come out of "retirement?" Cameron, who had three surgeries in a 10-month span last year, decided to give it one more go, and he's helped solidify an offensive line that has allowed just seven sacks in the last eight games. "I think about that quite a bit," Cameron said. "Would we still be doing this well? Am I that integral? I think they'd be doing just fine, but this is a heck of a season to be part of." His teammates praise his leadership, which was evident against Washington State, which entered the game leading the nation in sacks, and UCLA, which has two of the nation's top-10 sack leaders. Cal allowed only one sack in each of those games. "I think we have a bunch of linemen who can play football, but having Cameron's experience and success on the line is huge," Longshore said. "He brings a swagger to our offense because of his confidence and demeanor."

-- What if offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar would have taken the head coaching post at Northwestern? Dunbar says he never considered returning to Northwestern to replace coach Randy Walker, who died in June. Instead, Dunbar stayed in Berkeley to call about 80 to 90 percent of the plays and to provide a fresh perspective to one of the top scoring offenses in the nation. "When I came in here Sunday, he had already watched five Arizona games," Cameron said. "He takes no time off, he really sets up plays well and he takes chances downfield. Between Tedford, (offensive line coach Jim) Michalczik and Dunbar, you have a heck of a trio of coaches."

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