Sunday, September 09, 2007

Contra Costa Times: It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win for sluggish Cal


FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- You knew this was coming for the Cal Bears. It was as predictable as seeing tie-dye on Telegraph Avenue or a sweater on Oski. The Bears were primed for a letdown after last week's 45-31 victory over Tennessee on a magical, emotional night at Memorial Stadium. And a letdown is exactly what they had Saturday against Colorado State. The Bears missed tackles and committed costly penalties. They gave up long drives and misfired on long passes. In the final minutes, they gave up two quick touchdowns as their lead dwindled to six points against a Rams team searching for its first win in nearly a year. But the Bears escaped with a 34-28 win, a 2-0 record and some valuable lessons they can draw on in the future. Not every win is a masterpiece. Some are paint by numbers or dogs smoking cigars and playing poker. But even ugly wins count.

Most great teams survive one or two of these bad hair days, these days that lack style points and surely don't impress the pollsters. Last season, USC beat Washington State by six points, Washington by six and Arizona State by seven in a three-week span. In the end, those were just three wins in the Trojans' Rose Bowl season. Assuming the 10th-ranked Bears don't stumble in the coming weeks, we'll soon forget most of the ugly details from Saturday's win. All we'll remember is that they beat Colorado State.

Cal coach Jeff Tedford surely left Hughes Stadium with a supersized knot in his stomach. But he also returned to Berkeley with enough video evidence to grab his team's undivided attention again. "We didn't play well throughout the game," Tedford said. "We took turns. Defensively, we didn't tackle very well in the first half and they drove the ball too much on us, controlled the clock. "Second half, the defense got them off the field and the offense had good field position and we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties."

Then there was that late-game collapse when Tedford gave some of his young Cal defensive backs a chance to play and they nearly gave the game away. The Rams, coming off a heart-breaking overtime loss to Colorado, kept swinging."I knew we were going to get their best shot today," Tedford said. "And that's what we talked about and thankfully we had enough to win. We're very fortunate to win today, but we'll take a lot of great lessons out of this."

The Bears were favored by 14 points, but they came out sluggishly, fell behind 7-0 and led just 17-14 at halftime. No one should have been shocked. It's human nature to relax after reaching a huge goal. That's why it's so tough for Super Bowl champions -- or champions of any type -- to repeat. The Bears had been pointing to their rematch with Tennessee for an entire year after being embarrassed by the Volunteers in 2006. Then Cal beat Tennessee convincingly in a nationally televised, prime-time game in front of an electric home crowd of 72,516. After experiencing that scene, playing a noon road game at Colorado State before a crowd of 27,805 had to be a buzz kill for the Bears.

"It's not tough in the sense of playing an emotional game then coming back," Cal quarterback Nate Longshore contended. "It's more just, you've got to not be complacent. "You've got to always strive to get better. We've got to stay focused, and the leadership has to make it a point that we need to get better." Longshore and Cal's offense has plenty to work on after Saturday's disjointed effort. The Bears' passing attack was certainly out of sync. "We're just happy to get the win," Cal wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins said. "We made a lot of mistakes. We have a lot of things to fix." Longshore's deep passes, for instance, were consistently a few yards too long. "We had guys open and just didn't make plays," Tedford said. "And when we hit them, they dropped the ball or caught it and fumbled. "We just weren't in sync today. We're going to come back next week and we're going to practice really hard in passing game and make sure we're back on top of that because we weren't as crisp as we need to be."

A handful of big plays on both sides of the ball saved the Bears. DeSean Jackson scored on a 73-yard reverse, and freshman sensation Jahvid Best jetted 64 yards for a touchdown. On defense, the Bears forced three huge turnovers and five sacks. Still, it was a struggle for Bears against a Rams team that has now lost nine straight games dating to '06. "It teaches the guys that in college football, every game can be close," Cal linebacker Anthony Felder said. "Everybody has athletes. It's good to get that under our belts."

It was even better to escape with a win, even an ugly one.

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