By JOHN ADAMS, email@example.com
Cal quarterback Nate Longshore's take on last year's season opener at Neyland Stadium isn't much different from everyone else's. "Shell-shocked" he said. That applied not just to a quarterback starting his first college road game but an entire team of Golden Bears, who were blitzed by big plays and bedeviled by their mistakes while falling behind 35-0. In scoring the last 18 points, Cal succeeded only in producing a misleading score. Otherwise, its much-anticipated opener was an abject failure. And it couldn't have come at a worse time. The nationally ranked Golden Bears were a program on the rise, perhaps ready to challenge Southern Cal for the Pac-10 championship. UT was coming off a 5-6 season. Cal spent the next eight weeks playing up to its preseason hype, scoring more than 40 points in five consecutive games and winning eight straight games. The more it won, the more inexplicable its season opener seemed. "I think we were prepared (for UT)," Longshore said in a telephone interview. "We had practiced well. But sometimes, you have games that don't reflect what happened in practice.
"We didn't play well. They were on their game." The Golden Bears actually wound up with a better record and higher ranking than the Vols. They finished 14th in both polls with a 10-3 record, which included a 45-10 rout of Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl. Both teams will enter the 2007 season as consensus top-20 teams. UT has been ranked as high as seventh; Cal is ranked ninth nationally by espn.com. The preseason rankings add luster to their season-opening rematch in Berkeley. But what happened last year at Neyland Stadium adds even more. The defeat wasn't just an embarrassment for Cal. It was an embarrassment for the entire Pac-10. The Golden Bears will have an opportunity to redeem themselves on national television Sept. 1. Based on Longshore's comments, redemption isn't a rallying cry. But he's a veteran quarterback, which means he's frightfully susceptible to lapsing into coach-speak at anytime.
"We try to look at it as one game at a time," Longshore said. "Definitely when you have a history with a team (that can add to your motivation). We focus more on when the season is starting. We know we've got so much time." Maybe I should have asked a Cal linebacker. But quarterbacks come first at Cal since Jeff Tedford became the head coach. Longshore, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior, is a prototypical drop-back passer, rated as the No. 5 quarterback in the country by The Sporting News. His season opener against UT, which was only his second college game, was an aberration. He spent most of the rest of the season playing like an NFL prospect.
He's only one of the concerns for a UT defense, which will have three new starters in the secondary. Cal's top three wide receivers, including preseason All-American DeSean Jackson, also return. Although the Golden Bears lost star tailback Marshawn Lynch, they return backup Justin Forsett, who has rushed for more than 1,600 yards the last two seasons. Also, three starters return in the offensive line, including All-Pac-10 center Alex Mack. "Our backups (in the offensive line) played a lot last year," Longshore said. "Everyone is experienced. I'm impressed with the work ethic they've had. I think the offensive line will be improved." So should the entire offense, which returns eight starters, including five players who have made either first- or second-team All-Pac-10 this preseason. That offense will have to make up for a defense that lost five starters. A different venue also should help Cal, which seemed unprepared for the volume of Neyland Stadium last year. "That type of noise ... I don't know if you can prepare for it," Longshore said. "It was a new type of loud. I was impressed." And shell-shocked.