Cal's sweet revenge
Big plays ignite Bears to pass national test
Rusty Simmons, Chronicle Staff Writer
One-hundred-thousand screaming orange-clad fans still haunted the Bears, embarrassed by a 35-18 loss on the national stage a year ago today. The overwhelming feeling that the loss tainted a 10-win, co-conference championship season never eased in their stomachs - until Saturday. Cal got its "redemption" with a 45-31 victory over Tennessee on a raucous evening in front of 72,516 fans in Strawberry Canyon. Center Alex Mack could barely complete the snap to Nate Longshore for the final kneel-down before he threw his hands in the air and started leaping around like a child. DeSean Jackson kick-started his Heisman Trophy campaign, offering up a gem for ESPN's Top 10 plays list with a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown, but this game was not about individuals. It was about last year's players who had moved on and didn't get a second chance. It was about erasing the stigma that the Pac-10 was weak. And it was a Cal program winning on the national stage.
"It was a big win; there's no question about it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We've been carrying this with us for a year, and I thought our guys were ready emotionally, physically and mentally. "I'm just real proud of our guys." Tailback Justin Forsett had gotten text messages from Marshawn Lynch and Marcus O'Keith, begging him to redeem the running backs' images. Linebacker Zack Follett had been in almost constant discussions with the departed Desmond Bishop. The duo responded. Forsett ran for 156 yards and a score and caught a screen pass that he turned into a 49-yard gain, and Follett recorded a sack and forced a fumble that Worrell Williams returned 44 yards for the first score of the game. From LSU coach Les Miles ripping the Pac-10 during the offseason to the small plane that flew over Memorial Stadium, dragging a banner that read "SEC rules, Pac-10 drools," Cal cultivated a resounding response. The Bears' fans joined in with a chant of "Pac-10 football" with Cal driving toward victory in the fourth quarter. This may have been the most significant win in Tedford's tenure. If 2003's triple-overtime win over USC was a wake-up call for conference foes, this win was meant to speak to the nation. No. 12 Cal (1-0) versus No. 15 Tennessee (0-1) was the lone top-25 meeting of the first week, and with a national TV audience on ABC, the Bears may have legitimized their national arrival.
"This is the biggest win in Cal history," Follett said. "We hit them and showed them what Pac-10 football was all about." Things of that magnitude are never easy. Cal had a 17-point lead with four minutes remaining in the third quarter, but the Volunteers shaved the lead to 38-31 and had the ball back seven minutes later. It appeared that Tennessee had finally worn the Bears down, but Cal physically dominated the final 10 minutes. The Bears forced back-to-back three-and-outs and reignited their offense, pushing the lead to 14 points as Nate Longshore completed three in a row to three different receivers to set up a 13-yard touchdown run by Forsett. Then, the first-time workhorse ate up the clock on two long drives down the stretch. "We had gotten a little conservative," Tedford said. "At that point, we decided to get aggressive and throw the ball down the field."
That drive may go down as the indelible image, but it was really decided in several other areas. It was decided in the trenches. Cal's lines - offensive and defensive - paved the way for a 230-111 advantage in rushing yards. "They're a physical football team, but we stood toe-to-toe with them," Tedford said. It was decided on offense. The Bears played almost mistake free, scored on 5 of 6 red-zone chances, and Longshore, who said he felt "really comfortable out there," responded to last season's opener by completing 19 of 28 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. It was decided on defense. Cal handled the Vols' new no-huddle offense with few substitutions. "It kind of looked like Peyton Manning's offense out there," Tedford said. "I bet he's spent a couple days there, installing that offense. ... But I thought we did a good job of handling it."