By Jon Wilner
Here is the link. Note that Jon Wilner will be live blogging from the came, which can be accessed through the preceeding link.
When I think of last year’s Cal-Tennessee game, I think of one play: the first play, the play Cal lost tight end Craig Stevens. I don’t know if Stevens is the strongest player on the roster, or if he’s the guy you’d least like to fight in a dark alley. But I know this: he’s Cal’s toughest player, its heart and soul in many ways. And when he got his clock cleaned on the opening kickoff (ie: concussion), Cal was finished. Toast. “The opening kick-off last year, it was a train wreck,'’ Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said. “There was a bunch of big, fast people running at each other and there were a lot of collisions happening out there.'’ That play — as well as the 100-something that followed it — showed that Tennessee was tougher than Cal. Mentally tougher, but especially physically tougher. Essentially what happened that day in Knoxville was: The Vols smashed Cal in the face, and Cal did not hit back. Sure, that fits the stereotypes. The SEC is all about toughness and defense, the Pac-10 about skill and finesse. This blog post is not about the relative merits of the two conferences.
It’s about Cal and whether the Bears are tough enough this season — tough enough to handle Tennessee on Saturday, USC on Nov. 10 and all the opponents in between. It’s about whether Cal is mentally tough enough to stay focused, to win the games it’s supposed to win and rise to the moment in the games it’s not supposed to win (USC). It’s about whether Cal is physically tough enough to handle the smash-mouth teams on its schedule, like Tennessee, Oregon State, Arizona and USC. Based on what we’ve seen from the Bears over the years, I’m not sure they are. They might be, but we don’t know it, can’t assume it, can’t predict it. The Bears certainly weren’t tough enough in Knoxville. They were intimidated by the crowd and the atmosphere, and they were beaten up by the Vols. They looked like they didn’t belong. “It’s a very physical football game, that’s for sure,'’ Tedford said. “The speed and the “physicalness” that they bring is about as good as it’s going to get.'’ If the Bears go out with a wimper Saturday in front of the home crowd, with all that’s riding on the outcome, they might as well pack it in. But I’d expect them to play well, to feel comfortable and confident and take it to the Vols — or at least match the Vols blow for blow. But that will only be the first test. To achive what Cal wants to achieve this season, to overtake USC and/or reach the Rose Bowl, the Bears cannot afford any clunkers. They can’t do what they did at Arizona last season, against a .500 outfit, and pull an el-foldo. They cannot have a letdown at home against a mid-level conference foes that they assume they’re going to beat, the way the No. 18 Bears had a letdown two years ago against Oregon State. And when Nov. 10 arrives, with USC and all the hype and attention and stakes, they cannot recoil from the moment. USC thrives in games like that; Cal doesn’t (or at least hasn’t). I don’t know if it’s the way the players are coached, or their natural state-of-mind, or the fact that Cal hasn’t been successful — Rose Bowl successful — in so long … or maybe it’s just that USC is better … but in two huge games against the Trojans, in 2004 and 2006, Cal didn’t rise to the occasion. When plays had to be made, USC made them, especially in the second half last year. And when mistakes were made, it was usually Cal making them.
That’s mental toughness, but to beat the Trojans, Cal will also need physical toughness. It’ll need to control USC at the line of scrimmage, smash USC in the mouth occasionally, rattle the Trojans’ receivers, run over a linebacker — maybe even take an early personal foul penalty that says: “We’re here, and we’re not backing down.” Hey, one of the Bears might want to try that Saturday. It would send a message to Tennessee, and the country, and his teammates.