BY Gerald Nicdao
Zack Follett made it his personal goal to hit Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge and the Cal football team gave him the opportunity to. On the opening drive of the game, the Bears sent Follett on a blitz - hitting Ainge, forcing the senior to fumble the football into the hands of linebacker Worrell Williams, sending him into the end zone with a 44-yard touchdown return. And if you ask Follett, that was just a precursor of what was to come, as No. 12 Cal made up for its embarrassing loss to the No. 15 Volunteers last year with a 45-31 victory at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. “I had Ainge’s picture on the back of my MySpace page and I was staring at it and I said to myself ‘We had to hit this guy,’” Follett said. “Last year, I was looking at the film, and he didn’t get touched. The No. 1 goal was for me to hit Erik Ainge and that set the tone.”
The pressure created by the blitz packages – though used sparingly – seemed to bother Ainge. While it may not show up in the stat book – the Bears only had one official sack on Ainge and he finished with 271 yards passing and three touchdowns – the pressure was enough to force Ainge into committing the small number of mistakes he made.
Midway through the third quarter, with Cal leading 38-21, Tennessee (0-1) had the ball on fourth and goal from Cal’s one yard line. The Bears sent linebackers Anthony Felder and Williams on a blitz up the middle, harassing Ainge and causing him to throw the ball off-balanced towards an unassuming Arian Foster who dropped the ball. “Our defense stiffened up right there,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said about the team’s goal line stand. “That was a big set of downs. It was really getting physical down there and I'm really proud of the guys. Our defense was on the field a lot. They showed that they're in great physical condition.” It looked like it was the Volunteers who were out-hustled and out-muscled in this contest, especially in comparison to last year’s season opener. Last year, the Bears managed to rush for 64 yards – in this season’s edition the team ran rough-shot through the Tennessee defense to the tune of 230 yards. Senior Justin Forsett had 163 of those yards to lead Cal (1-0). The former understudy to Marshawn Lynch seemed to run harder as the game wore on. He back-pedaled into the endzone for the Bears’ final score midway through the fourth quarter to put the team up 45-31 with nine minutes left to play. But Forsett still knows where to give his praise. “The offensive line opened up some holes for me where I didn’t get touched until I got to the secondary,” Forsett said. “They did a great job up front and I was just running through daylight.”
Cal Heisman Trophy hopeful DeSean Jackson showed off some of his flair with a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown. However, the junior wasn’t able to make too much of a difference on the offense, being held to four catches for 45 yards. But Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer seemed to learn from Jackson’s burst. The Vols did not allow Jackson to return another punt by either kicking the ball out of bounds or kicking it short of where Jackson was lined up. “The guy is electrifying, as we saw today,” Fulmer said. “We did a good job on him last year, but today he got away from us.” There was much talk before the game about how much last year’s contest haunted Cal throughout the past year. Even though the Bears ended the 2006 season with a bowl victory and 10 wins, it seemed that all anyone wanted to talk about was what happened in Knoxville, Tenn.
That won’t be the case this year. “We had a great year last year, but everyone was saying ‘But Tennessee – but the thumping in Tennessee,’” Follett said. “And now we can start the season with the thumping we put on them.”