Monday, September 03, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle: Excitement to come in bunches this season

Ray Ratto

The number of stick-with-you moments in Saturday's Cal-Tennessee game rolled over each other in waves, almost too many to properly sort. Too many players doing too many improbably delightful things, too many tacklers left flailing at specters, too many points and too many yards and too many electrifying characters to keep straight.  And right about closing time of the 12th-ranked Golden Bears' redemptive 45-31 win over the Volunteers, the first real truth of this season revealed itself. There won't be nearly enough safe opportunities for bathroom breaks. Too much can happen even in the most mundane of situations, thus fans must take greater care to regulate their hydration before and during a game. There will also have to be a greater understanding of the informal viewing rules regarding the Cal offense. Everything naturally runs through quarterback Nate Longshore, but in general, first downs belong to running backs Justin Forsett and, on occasion, Jahvid Best. Second downs to wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins, and tight end Cameron Morrah. Third downs, to all of them, and in short yardage situations, all of them, plus Robert Jordan and even fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou.

Defensively, well, you'll never know if you get the stout group that stopped Tennessee at the 1-yard-line and closed the Vols down in the fourth quarter, or the one that occasionally got shoved off the line and missed tackles in the secondary. And you absolutely, positively, cannot miss a kickoff or punt return. In short, this season is going to play hell on your digestive tract. There are simply not going to be enough natural breaks during the course of a game, and that takes into account the long TV time outs. "We have very, very good team speed," head coach Jeff Tedford said with the kind of understatement the captain of the Titanic displayed when he told his aides, "It's getting kind of damp."  "So it's nice to have all these playmakers. Tonight, everyone was really involved, and they all had opportunities to make plays." Yeah. About 11, by a conservative count. Those plays explained how Cal could break quickly, endure Tennessee's retaliatory third-quarter surge, and take the physical and emotional initiative down the stretch. Of all the spectacular highlights, the one that is likely to linger longest is Jackson's 77-yard punt return, perhaps because many folks wise in the ways of Cal knew ahead of time that it might be the only return opportunity he got.  And it was. He gathered a well-struck 42-yard kick from Britton Colquitt near the Tennessee sideline, and headed quickly across the field, evading first Denarius Moore and then Chris Donald, got a superb block from Greg Van Hoesen, and turned the corner at about the 25 and then ... well, you just knew he would stop running when there was nothing left to run for. The down side? He may be avoided like Barry Bonds with first base open the rest of the year.

"I hope it doesn't go like that," Jackson said afterward, "but teams are going to do what they're going to do, and I just have to be prepared for whatever happens." That is, if you consider watching shanked punts sailing out of bounds a skill that requires preparation. The other big moments were inspiring, but not quite as electrifying. There were at least four Forsett touches, one in each quarter to fill out his 205 yards of total offense. Best's third handle was a rudimentary pitchout that he turned into 34 yards in the time it takes you to turn to the guy next to you and say, "Isn't he the freshman from Salesian that won the 100-meters at the state track meet?" Hawkins had seven catches, one for a score, establishing himself as the most likely beneficiary of the added attention Jackson will receive. And if Ta'ufo'ou doesn't become the goal-line option of choice, it will only because the need to keep all the relevant players sufficiently involved takes precedence. "That's definitely going to be important as the year goes on," Tedford said. "We've got a lot of guys who want to contribute and can contribute, and you want them to know you believe they can. But it's not that difficult to do. It helps that they all understand how many of them can make plays for us, and that they know we're going to need them all."  As for Tennessee, the Vols discovered what Cal learned last year - losing by two scores is no way to start a season. Indeed, with the Vols' horrifying schedule (they have the always irritating Southern Mississippi next week, and then the always brutal SEC), they almost surely watched any big plans they had for January disappear. As much as we locals concentrated on what Cal risked Saturday, we clearly overlooked Tennessee's stake.

In other words, don't bank on the Vols winning eight in a row like Cal did last year. Cal's issues, though, are more immediate. Having lost through victory the gift of desperation that fueled them last year, they have to remain attentive through the Colorado State and Louisiana Tech weeks, and then resist the temptation to start dreaming of Nov. 10, and USC.

In other words, the season hasn't opened up for the Bears, according to Tedford. It's just opened. "Games like this really are more risk than reward," he said. "But if we don't have success next week, they'll forget about this one pretty quickly." That is, of course, a lie. Very few people either inside the actual Memorial Stadium or the Memorial Stadiums inside their rec rooms will forget this one. There were too many signs of Cal's full weaponry, too many moments of effervescence against a team with a history of heart-breaking.


No comments: