By Wesley Rucker
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Sure, Cal feels disrespected. But so does Tennessee. The Volunteers whipped California 35-18 in Knoxville to open last season, and the score didn't remotely describe the humiliation. Cal coach Jeff Tedford said today's 8 p.m. EDT rematch is more about redemption than revenge, though one could argue that's splitting hairs. Regardless, the Bears are mad. But so are the Vols. "Obviously, when you're up 35-0 when the starters get taken out, and then the next year you're a 6-point underdog again, that's obviously frustrating," said Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who expects to play tonight despite a broken pinkie on his throwing hand. Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said again before Friday's walk-through that Ainge would be fine, and Ainge took snaps with the first-team offense. Though he and his teammates are miffed at the betting lines and national pundits picking Cal, Ainge certainly understands why the Golden Bears are so motivated.
"You look at their end, and what happened in the game last year, they've had a year with that taste in their mouth," Ainge said. "I know what that's like to have a year with a bad taste in your mouth. Everybody on this team does. I think any way you cut it, both teams have added motivation besides the fact that it's the first football game of the year." In a game with so much overall disappointment, Syd'Quan Thompson found one of the few ways to stand out. Then a redshirt freshman playing his first college game, Thompson was dominated by Vols All-America receiver Robert Meachem last year. Meachem caught five passes for 182 yards, including two simple hitch routes turned into 42- and 80-yard touchdowns because Thompson couldn't tackle him near the line of scrimmage.
"I was just out there trying to make a play for my team," Thompson said this week. "Things didn't happen the way I expected them to happen at the time, but I think that game really woke me up for the rest of the season. "It just made me come to each game focused and playing at a high level. You never know what's going to happen on the next play."
Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said that in hindsight, "We should have done a better job giving (Thompson) help" against the future first-round NFL draft pick. Meachem's freakish size and speed combination aside, Thompson also played the game with a club covering a broken hand. "He's got two hands this year, and he has a lot of experience," Tedford said. "He had a great year last year. He just took a chance on two plays and it didn't work out for us. "The team supported him. He's a great cover guy. I have a lot of confidence in Syd." The Vols would like to silence Memorial Stadium and its 50,000 mini megaphones with the same kind of start they had in Knoxville, when reserve defensive end Robert Ayers gave Cal tight end Craig Stevens a concussion. "They are very physical, there's no question about that," Tedford said. "The opening kickoff last year was a train wreck. There was a bunch of big, fast people running into each other. It was a lot of emotion, a lot of intensity on the opening kickoff last year.
"It's fast, big-time football." And big-time revenge (or redemption) football. And the winners can proudly say they won the biggest season opener in the nation. "We know Tennessee's going to be a great opponent," Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. "I think if we just do what we need to do, and if we could play our best and pull out a win, then it's going to boost our morale for the rest of the season, and it will set us up for good things." Tedford said wins would "validate that we're a good football team. "If you beat a team like Tennessee, that's not easy to do," Tedford said. "They always have such great talent and are well coached, and they play very, very hard." Tonight, Hefney said they will be very, very mad. "They're going to tell you that you're the underdog, and it's going to hype you up," Hefney said. "Then we're going to go out there and hit them in the mouth, I hope."