Monday, September 03, 2007

Knoxville News Sentinel: UT forced to play Cal's game

By John Adams

Maybe Tennessee went west a day too soon. The Vols arrived on Thursday, giving themselves a couple of days to acclimate to California and Pacific Daylight Time.  They acclimated just fine. In fact, by Saturday evening, this proud, card-carrying member of the SEC found itself playing Pac-10 football. You've probably watched enough television to know how that goes. You go heavy on the offense and light on the defense. And when in doubt, you pass. When not in doubt, you also pass. The Vols could have passed for Washington State, Arizona State, or any other run-of-the-mill Pac-10 program at Cal Memorial Stadium. One problem: Cal isn't a run-of-the-mill Pac-10 program. It's the real deal. And it proved that again and again in a 45-31 victory. While the Vols looked like a Pac-10 patsy, the Golden Bears looked nothing like the dazed bunch that stumbled around Neyland Stadium for three quarters last year in a 35-18 loss that was much worse than the final score. UT's performance was only half as embarrassing. At least, its offense showed up. But this was the wrong time and place to try and win an offensive shootout. Never mind how efficient UT's offense was for much of the game. Or that quarterback Erik Ainge completed a career-high 32 of 47 passes.

Cal matched UT's efficiency and added spectacular playmakers. The result: only a fumble by quarterback Nate Longshore at the UT 1-yard-line prevented Cal from hanging half a hundred on the Vols. Cal didn't just have the offense. It had the motivation. All week long, Cal players talked about how humiliated they were by the way they played last season at Neyland Stadium. They weren't all talk. They weren't all pass, either. Justin Forsett, a 5-foot-8, 204-pound running back, rushed for 156 yards, including 122 in the second half. By the fourth quarter, he was almost as hard to tackle as Cal All-American wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who also doubles quite adequately as a punt returner. Jackson returned four punts for touchdowns last season while leading the nation in punt-return average. The Vols punted to him anyway. Once.  For that, the Vols get a loud, heartfelt thank-you from the Cal Sports Information Office, which has invested in a Heisman Trophy campaign for Jackson. He brought their campaign to life with a 77-yard touchdown return on which the entire UT coverage unit appeared to be running in slow-motion. Compared to Jackson, it was.

After that misadventure, the Vols shrewdly elected to punt the ball out of bounds or out of the reach of Jackson the rest of the game. Just in time, huh? Not only did the Vols get showed up, they showed some of the same shortcomings that were so evident last season. Their running game was unreliable, and their pass rush was considerably worse than their rushing attack. Despite all their failings, they still mounted a comeback, cutting a 17-point lead to seven early in the fourth quarter. They even forced the Golden Bears to punt on three consecutive possessions. But what you might have mistaken for a crucial change in momentum was merely a lull in the Cal offense. Pressured to answer UT's challenge, the Golden Bears responded with their most impressive drive of the night - a five-play, 70-yard surge, capped by Forsett's 20-yard touchdown run. It was pure, Pac-10 football. And it was no place for an impostor.

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