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BERKELEY, Calif. -- If the California Golden Bears wanted redemption Saturday night, they got it. No. 12 Cal beat No. 15 Tennessee in all phases of the game, as a 45-31 final score might suggest. One season after being humiliated in Knoxville, Cal proved something to the nation, and maybe even itself. "A big win, no question about it," Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. "We been carrying this with us for a year." A season ago, Cal went 10-3 and won a share of the Pacific-10 Conference championship. But that achievement didn't heal the psychic injuries of falling behind Tennessee 35-0 in the third quarter of the season opener. "We had a great year last year," Cal linebacker Zack Follett said, "but everyone said, 'But Tennessee.' And now we can start off the season with the thumping we put on them, and I'm excited about that." Cal traveled the distance from "But, Tennessee," to "Beat Tennessee," fueled by big plays. The offense scored a lot. The defense scored once. And Tennessee punted once to DeSean Jackson, which, translated from the language of dumb football, means that the Bears also scored once in the kicking game. California made big plays and Tennessee did not, which is usually an accurate way to describe any victory. All told, a raucous crowd of 72,516 fans could leave Memorial Stadium confident that their Bears deserve national attention.
Not even two minutes into the game, the Bears opened the scoring thanks to Follett's kidney-rattling, blind-side sack of Volunteers quarterback Erik Ainge, who coughed the ball up at the Tennessee 44. Bears linebacker Worrell Williams scooped up the ball on the first bounce and sprinted for a touchdown. "I was surprised he got up after that hit," Follett said. "Everything you practice for was coming into that hit." Asked whether he had a name for that kind of sack, Follett replied with the six notes of the "SportsCenter" theme song: "Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh."
Ainge bounced back, driving Tennessee smoothly downfield for touchdowns on the next two possessions. He appeared to handle the broken little finger on his throwing hand without a flinch, completing his first nine passes. With the score 14-14, however, Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe chose a play-action pass on third-and-1 at the Tennessee 37. Cutcliffe outsmarted himself -- the play not only lost 2 yards but sent Jackson onto the field. When the public-address announcer told the fans Jackson had gone into position to receive the punt, he waved his arms upward in a plea for noise. Once Jackson caught Britton Colquitt's punt outside the left hash at the Cal 23, the fans responded. Jackson slid away from gunner Denarius Moore and started back toward the middle of the field. Another Vol drew a bead on him. Jackson pulled up short. "I seen a lot of white jerseys," Jackson said. "It was kicked on the opposite hash, way outside the hash, and I had to go to the other side just to get to my wall." Most punt returners, if the return is set up on the side of the field and the kick goes to the other side, they accept their fate. Not Jackson. "Our guys know with DeSean, we always need to be playing because you never know where he's going to go," Tedford said. "And he made a couple of great moves to make those first two guys miss. So our guys always know to keep playing."
Jackson accelerated to his right, where a gold-jerseyed wall of Bears awaited him. Once he turned the corner, the last 60 yards or so became a mere formality. Jackson has returned 27 punts in his college career of two seasons plus a game. That's not very many, and with good reason. He has returned six of them for touchdowns. That's an average of .222, and the Mendoza Line is a pretty good place to be in this sport. Tennessee punted to Jackson no more, and he finished with 143 total yards on six touches.
The Vols tied the Bears once more, but Cal scored the next 17 points, and you could feel the stadium begin to celebrate. Ainge responded by putting 10 more points on the board.
In fact, for three quarters, Ainge's accuracy looked as if it would compel young quarterbacks across the nation to take hammers to their pinkies in an attempt to copy him. But Ainge appeared to throw more like Jamie Moyer than like an NFL quarterback. By the middle of the second half, Ainge had no fastball. Early in the fourth quarter, on first-and-10 at the California 24, he threw a floater downfield to Brent Vinson that took longer to land than a parachute toy. In three quarters, Ainge completed 29 of 36 passes for 277 yards. He dinked and dunked, the football equivalent of painting the corners. But in the fourth quarter, with the Volunteers trailing, the Bears increasing their pressure and his finger not healing any time soon, Ainge completed 3 of 11 passes for minus-6 yards. "I thought he showed a lot of courage in the game," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who watched his team surrender its most points in 12 seasons, and on his 57th birthday, to boot. Fulmer didn't get a pretty present. The Bears had more playmakers, and more of them shone late. Justin Forsett rushed for 92 yards -- in the fourth quarter. He finished with 156 yards on 23 carries. Freshman Jahvid Best reeled off a 34-yard run in the second quarter to set up a touchdown and give notice that he could be a star.
So call it redemption, revenge or whatever. The truth is, the Bears made the kind of mistakes teams are wont to make in early-season games -- a lot of penalties, a fumble at the goal line -- and won anyway. Cal won the way you win when you are the better team: because of yourself, and occasionally in spite of yourself. "I think our opponent shouldn't be our judge," said quarterback Nate Longshore, who went 19-of-28 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. "It's one of those things where we have expectations for ourselves on every play. If we don't meet that expectation, we got work to do. They deserved a little payback. At the same time, it comes down to us. They're behind us now, so we won't think about them for the rest of the year." Let's not get carried away with the maturity. Leading 45-31, Longshore never got the snap at the goal line that resulted in the fumble and a touchback. "I needed that 50," he said. "I needed that." That's more like it.