By Steven Dunst
In the hotel the night before the No. 12 Cal football team took the field against No. 15 Tennessee, Bears coach Jeff Tedford turned towards to an unlikely source for motivation.
He showed the team a three-round Ultimate Fighting match. The message was simple: Cal needed to be prepared to absorb some punishment and deliver some hits of its own against a powerful Tennessee lineup, or else it would have little chance for redemption. “It was all about watching them pour out their blood, sweat and tears,” said Worrell Williams, who got the Bears off to a quick start with a fumble recovery for a touchdown. “We knew it was going to be a brawl, a war,” Tedford said. “We were going to get hit in the mouth a little, but we had to bounce back and leave all the desire and emotion out on the field.” In case the vicious mixed-martial arts match did not get the point across, Tedford read the team quotes from Volunteers safety Jonathan Hefney, who mouthed off earlier in the week about how the Bears were soft and gave up last year in Knoxville, Tenn. “We said there was no way we were going to get out-powered (Saturday),” Williams said. “If we did, this game would haunt us forever.” Williams should not be plagued by too many nightmares after Saturday.
In possibly the biggest win of the Jeff Tedford era, the Bears proved themselves to be not only the most skilled team on the field but the most physical as well en route to a dominating 45-31 victory over Tennessee at Memorial Stadium. After spending a year trying to forget the painful memories of last season’s blowout loss in Knoxville, Cal made an emphatic statement of its own, piling on the most points the Volunteers have given up in 12 years and coming within less than a yard of breaking the half-century mark. Not a bad way to start off the 2007 campaign and ensure that the Pac-10 would stay relevant on a national stage as more than just No. 1 USC and others. The Bears set a physical, hard-hitting tone early on. Linebacker Zack Follett almost delivered the TKO early in the first quarter with a hit that would have made ultimate fighter Chuck Liddell proud.
He leveled Vols quarterback Erik Ainge on a blind-side blitz, slamming the senior with a rib-rattling shot and forcing a fumble, which Williams scooped up and ran in for an easy score. “We hit him and we hit the rest of them as hard as we could and they folded,” Follett said. “It was the third quarter and their O-line was already taking a knee.” That single play did a lot to squash the idea that Pac-10 squads are not as physical or fast as SEC teams. The final score might indicate a track meet, but Saturday’s win was won in the trenches as much as anywhere else. At halftime, the Vols only had 37 rushing yards, with Cal’s four-man defensive front clogging the running lanes. And with the Bears leading 38-21 in the third quarter, momentum swung clearly in Cal’s favor courtesy of defensive end Rulon Davis.
On third-and-goal from the two, Davis delivered a jarring blow to Tennessee wideout Lucas Taylor, stopping him short of the goal line. On fourth down, Davis snuffed out the screen pass and forced an incompletion with another big hit. Perhaps most shockingly, the Volunteers’ defensive front was visibly worn down in the fourth quarter, yielding numerous long runs to Bears tailback Justin Forsett. Forsett ended the game with 156 yards rushing, only the seventh time in the last 38 games that a running back has broken the 100-yard mark against the SEC power. The physical performance of Cal’s offensive line was not lost on quarterback Nate Longshore, who was not sacked a single time.
“They were getting nasty in there,” Longshore said of the line. “I wouldn’t want to play against them.” With the entire nation watching in anticipation, the Bears came through with a heavyweight-championship performance.