BY Steven Dunst
Los Angeles-native and starting cornerback Brandon Hampton said he always gets a little extra thrill when the No. 10 Cal football team travels to Southern California.
Unfortunately for him, that thrill has always quickly turned to dread. Coach Jeff Tedford has never won in Los Angeles and suffered a particularly heart-breaking loss two years ago to UCLA, when Maurice Jones-Drew almost single-handedly defeated the undefeated Bears. Hampton and the entire Cal team are eager for a chance to forget recent history and recover from a crippling loss last week when the Bears take on the Bruins Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Rose Bowl. “It left a stale feeling in our mouths,” Hampton said while reminiscing about the 47-40 loss at the Rose Bowl two years ago. “We’re not going to let that happen again. It’s make-it-or-break-it right now.” With the national college football landscape riddled with upsets this year, Cal (5-1, 2-1 in the Pac-10) still has an outside chance of reaching the BCS title game even after suffering a 31-28 upset loss to Oregon State last week.
“The feeling after that loss is going to linger the rest of the season,” left tackle Mike Gibson said. “I don’t want to feel that again. The sky’s the limit for us.” Gibson will have another difficult task this week matching up against UCLA defensive end Bruce Davis, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks. The Bruins (4-2, 3-0) as a whole return 20 starters, but their strength lies in their defensive front seven. UCLA is only allowing 81.7 rushing yards per game. “Bruce is very athletic, very fast,” Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. “He can cause a lot of problems. He’s a guy who can really come off the edge, can really take things down sideline to sideline.” While UCLA knows it can rely on Davis to provide pressure, it is not as sure about who will start at quarterback. Bruins coach Karl Dorrell said he expects Patrick Cowan to start behind center tomorrow, but a torn ligament in his knee has sidelined Cowan for the past three weeks. If he is unable to go, McLeod Bethel-Thompson—who is not even on scholarship—will likely get the nod, even though he threw four interceptions in the Bruins’ ugly loss to then-winless Notre Dame. “We have the same goals every game no matter who the quarterback is,” said Hampton, downplaying the importance of Dorrell’s game-time decision. Cal faces uncertainty as well.
After spraining his ankle three weeks ago against Oregon, Nate Longshore has been taking snaps in practice, but Tedford said that his status for Saturday's match is a game-time decision. Backup Kevin Riley performed admirably last week, throwing for nearly 300 yards, but the focus throughout the week has been on the last play, when he was tackled far short of the goal line and time expired before the Bears could kick a field goal. “Nate has such leadership in the huddle, that confidence,” Gibson said. “That’s because he’s been in the system so long. But we all really believe in Kevin.” Whoever is at quarterback will have numerous weapons to work with, including standout receivers Lavelle Hawkins and DeSean Jackson. Jackson, however, has been unusually quiet on the receiving front for most of this season, with defenses scheming to limit his touches in the open field.
“It’s not a situation that for our offense to be effective, we have to put DeSean in this spot or that spot for us, because all those guys are very effective,” Tedford said. Like Tedford, Hampton is much more concerned with getting a win than with fretting about which receiver gets touches. “We’re going to prove this week we’re a championship-caliber team,” Hampton said.