By Ivan Maisel
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Coaches believe that revenge is the junk food of motivation. A player competes against himself, regardless of the opponent. In the case of No. 12 California, which opens the season at home on Saturday against No. 15 Tennessee (ABC, 8 p.m. ET), what that means is simple. The Golden Bears should not fill up on the 35-18 loss they suffered to the Volunteers in last season's opener in Knoxville. That 35-0 deficit the Golden Bears endured midway through the third quarter last season is nothing but a big bag of Doritos. The Bears shouldn't wash them down with the Mountain Dew of 106,009 fans at Neyland Stadium roaring in derision. As all good teams do, Cal should nourish itself with the celery sticks of personal growth. The team should focus on the seven-grain bread of making themselves better. To which the Bears say: Yeah, right.
Cal rebounded to finish 10-3 and win a share of its first Pacific-10 Conference championship since 1975. But that accomplishment is not what got the Bears out of bed to lift weights on cold winter days. The 45-10 romp over Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl pales beside the memory of the plane ride home from Knoxville, which lasted slightly longer than Moby Dick. "It's been a burn in our soul," Cal safety Thomas DeCoud said. Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge threw touchdown passes of 12, 42, 80 and 50 yards. Montario Hardesty scored on a 43-yard run. "We have definitely devoted a lot of hard work … for Tennessee and making sure we protect our house," DeCoud said.
"That is going to stick with you every workout, every run," linebacker Zack Follett said of the loss. "It sticks in your mind. We went in bright-eyed. … It was hard on the young guys." Quarterback Nate Longshore began the game as a sophomore with about one half of collegiate experience playing under a new offensive coordinator (Mike Dunbar, since departed for Minnesota). He completed 11 of 20 passes for 85 yards with one interception before watching most of the second half from the sideline. Longshore went on to finish second in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency (141.3) and touchdown passes (24). The numbers provide the outline of the improvement Longshore has made under head coach Jeff Tedford, a coach known for creating a college quarterback out of a pile of high-school clay. Tedford, probably not quoting Cole Porter, said the difference in Longshore is "night and day." "It's always going to be there," Longshore said of the Tennessee loss. "At the same time, we had a great experience. We got some work at a pretty sweet stadium. … We learned a lot that game, even though the outcome didn't [look] that way." The experience, Follett said, prepared the Bears for the Holiday Bowl and the Aggies, a game as lopsided as their opener, only with Cal in a different role. "The size of their athletes," Follett began, referring to the Vols. "Big, strong and fast guys. They have it all. In the South, they are bred that way. We are a different type of athlete. The Pac-10 is a little more finesse."
Finesse can be an ugly word in some regions of college football. A year later, Cal is ranked higher than Tennessee, just as the Bears were a year ago. The snorts from Rocky Top can be heard across the country. Tedford put chivalry in the same motivational wastebasket as revenge. "We're not out to make a statement for the Pac-10," Tedford said. "We're out to play our best that we can play. … If we had played our best and gotten beat like that, you can make that statement. We didn't even come close to how we play."
Tennessee comes to Berkeley with a question mark surrounding Ainge, who broke the little finger on his throwing hand in an exchange with center Josh McNeil early this week. Fulmer said as early as Tuesday that he had full confidence in sophomore quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who played like, well, a freshman last season (31-of-66, 401 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions). None of that matters to the Cal players or their fans, 50,000 of whom will be armed with megaphones on Saturday, courtesy of the athletic department. If the Bears beat the Vols, it will taste sweet no matter who wears the white uniforms with orange numbers. Even Tedford admitted as much. "If we're successful in this game, it will just validate that we're a good football team," Tedford said. Waiter, a round of Twinkies for the Cal locker room. Just don't put it on the coach's tab.