By Jonathan Okanes
If victory indeed starts at the line of scrimmage in football, is that why Tennessee beat Cal so badly last season? The Vols say yes. The Bears aren't so sure. Tennessee piled up 514 yards of offense and held Cal to 64 yards rushing during its 35-18 rout in the season opener in Knoxville, Tenn. Those numbers will have to change for Cal when the teams meet again today to open the 2007 schedule, and an improved performance in the trenches is the first step in altering the course. "They were bigger and stronger than we were, just because of the kind of football they play and how they recruit," Cal free safety Thomas DeCoud said. "This year, I feel like we're definitely just as big and strong, so it's going to be a showdown."
Center Alex Mack is Cal's only returning starter along the offensive line from that game, and end Antonio Reynolds is the only member of Tennessee's defensive front who started against Cal. The Vols have only two returning starters from that game on their offensive line, the Bears just one defensive lineman. "That was last year," Cal offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik said. "This is not the same Cal team that was in Tennessee last year, and this is not the same Tennessee team that was there last year. It's just a different team. It's a different feeling." Although the 12th-ranked Bears have just one offensive lineman who started last season in Knoxville, left tackle Mike Gibson went on to start 10 games, Noris
Malele nine, Brian De La Puente three and Mike Tepper two. Tennessee also has experienced linemen.
One obvious difference is that this game is being played at Cal. Michalczik, who also is the Bears' offensive-line coach, said the unit didn't play well at Tennessee because "the crowd noise really affected us and put us at a disadvantage. I don't think we executed as well as we should have. If you get out of that comfort zone, sometimes you can't execute like you want to." That game was supposed to launch running back Marshawn Lynch's Heisman Trophy candidacy. He had 12 carries for 74 yards - 39 after the Bears had fallen behind 35-0 - and Cal averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. "After the game, we came back and said, `That's not us,' " Michalczik said. "We're better than that. After watching the tape, it was like `Holy smokes, what were we thinking?' " LaMarcus Coker, the Vols' top returning rusher, has been suspended for today's game, but Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty hurt the Bears the most last year and both are back. Foster and Hardesty combined for 125 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry against Cal. The 15th-ranked Volunteers also return quarterback Erik Ainge, who broke the pinkie on his throwing hand Monday but is expected to start. Ainge threw for 291 yards and four touchdowns against Cal. A good chunk of the yardage came on short passes to wide receiver Robert Meachem, the New Orleans Saints' first-round draft pick, who broke free for touchdown plays of 80 and 42 yards and averaged 36.4 yards on five receptions.
"They were really good up front and they're still good up front, but that wasn't the deal that killed us," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. The Bears would like to dispel the notion that the Pacific-10 Conference plays a softer brand of football than the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee players are confident they will successfully defend their conference's honor. "SEC football, we play tough football," All-America safety Jonathan Hefney said. "That's what we're bringing to California. Just like when they came here last year, we're still tough."