Saturday, September 01, 2007

SF Chronicle: Remembering hard times erases softness for Bears

Rusty Simmons

Cal linebacker Zack Follett has been taking copious notes since this time last year.  "I remember 108,000 people chanting S-E-C, and we couldn't respond," Follett said about last year's 35-18 loss to the Southeastern Conference power in Knoxville, Tenn. "I remember the sting of being embarrassed." He read Tennessee players' quotes and talked to former teammate Desmond Bishop. "They think we're soft," Follett said. "When Dez was working out for the draft, he was training with some guys from Tennessee. They flatly told him that we were soft, and we haven't proved them wrong. "Yet." After being physically beaten along the line on both sides of the ball in the last season-opener, setting the physical tone became a weekly mantra for Cal. While the Bears are trying to keep the focus in house, instead of getting caught up in the buzz of Tennessee again, playing a physical brand of football may never be more vital than in today's matchup.

"It's extremely important because, as an offensive line, we can control the game, control the tempo, control the physicalness and control the clock," right tackle Mike Tepper said. "As an offensive line, we're taking this game personally." Cal allowed a season-high three sacks and rushed for a season-low 64 yards against Tennessee. By season's end, the offensive line had allowed only a sack a game on average and paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher for the fifth consecutive season. Playing against ultra-physical Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl, the Bears allowed no sacks and rushed for 241 yards. "Toward the end of last year, setting a physical tone became a theme that really caught on with this group," defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "On both sides of the ball, I thought we really did that against Texas A&M, and hopefully, that will continue. "Tennessee is a physical team, and we've got to be able to match that." Midway through training camp, Follett didn't like what he was seeing from the defense. He called the unit together for a meeting.

"There was no bounce to our steps and we were going through the motions," Follett said. "I tried to make the defensive line remember that feeling from Tennessee last year. I told them Tennessee is bigger and stronger than what we were facing, and the guys really stepped up." Not everyone is a believer.  A writer from Tennessee changed his prediction Thursday from a win by the No. 12 Bears to the No. 15 Volunteers. He hadn't seen a single snap in practice. He had simply seen the Cal players walk past him. "I didn't realize they were so small," he said. "I don't see how they don't get their (heads) knocked off." It's actually a lot closer than it appears on first glance. Cal's projected defensive line averages 295 pounds to Tennessee's 304 along the offensive line, and the Bears' offensive line (303 average) outweighs the Vols' defensive front four (276.25).

"They were a little bit bigger and stronger than we were, but I feel like we're just as big and strong this year," safety Thomas DeCoud said.  You hear a lot about the SEC being real physical and fast, and they say Pac-10 guys are soft," said receiver Lavelle Hawkins, who started his career at LSU. "I really can't say what I want to say. Let's just say I'm definitely looking forward to this game."

Cal story line

Forget beating USC in 2003 and each of the streak-breaking wins on the road against the other Pac-10 teams. If Cal wins today, it will be the defining victory of the Jeff Tedford era. To a certain extent, the game is about redemption for the Bears, but, more so, it's about the future and setting up an opportunity for a special season.


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