Let's face it: it's 2009, and the Cal football team is no longer sneaking up on people. It has been nearly a decade since Tom Holmoe's 1-11 Bears were the official conference punching bag (unless you count the entire Pac-10 to be USC's own personal punching bag). Now a perennial Pac-10 contender, Cal has consistently wooed top recruits while boasting six NFL first round draft picks since 2003 and a national rushing leader in 2004. But while the Bears are no longer an underdog in the Tedford era, that doesn't mean the team hasn't had its share of them.
Steve Levy, QB (2002-06)
The New Jersey native did not play at all his first two seasons in Berkeley after redshirting in '02 and undergoing shoulder surgery the following year. When he finally did see the field in 2004, it was as only as a fullback and special teams contributor. But in 2005, starter Nate Longshore was lost for the year in the season opener against Sacramento State, and the team sputtered midway through the season as quarterback Joe Ayoob's futility became the source of future anger management issues and liver problems for Cal fans everywhere. After doing clean-up duty for Ayoob's four-interception debacle against USC, Levy finally got the starting nod against Stanford the very next week. He led the Bears to a 27-3 victory in the Big Game on the Farm, throwing for a long touchdown. Levy remained under center a week later, as he quarterbacked Cal to a 35-28 Las Vegas Bowl win over Brigham Young.
Joe Igber, RB (1999-02)
Pac-10 followers are well aware that Cal has had six consecutive 1,000-yard rushers. But while current or future pros (Arrington, Lynch, Forsett, Best) got the headlines, recognition must go out to the man who started the streak. Igber was the first (and smallest) link, officially listed at a very generous 5-foot-8. His size scared off many college recruits, as Cal was the only BCS school to offer him a scholarship. And Igber certainly earned it while having to overcome more than just his height throughout his career.
Igber suffered a shoulder injury that derailed his junior season (the dreadful 2001 campaign), but he bounced back in a big way in the first year of the Tedford era. He posted 1,130 yards for the Bears to become the school's second all-time leading rusher upon leaving. But Igber saved his best game for last, capping off his Cal career with a 42-yard scoring run to help the Bears recapture the Axe from Stanford. The burst highlighted a brilliant 226 yard performance that remains a Big Game record, and part of Cal lore. Ever so humble, Igber, who turned down invitations to pro camps to focus on graduate school, was quoted as saying, "People will forget about me in the next couple of months, but .... We got the Axe."
He was wrong about the first part.
Vince Strang, RB (2002-03)
While Igber notched the last offensive touchdown of 2002, an even more diminutive player opened up Cal's scoring the following season. Looking at Vince Strang-all 5-foot-8, 150 pounds of him-some would wonder what business he has being on a football field, let alone burning No. 7 Kansas State's secondary for a 34-yard touchdown reception. The walk-on transfer from Ocean Coast College got his chance to play a larger role after second-leading receiver Jonathan Makonnen was injured- and did he ever take advantage of it. Strang posted modest numbers, but had a knack for making big plays that made him a fan favorite. Against Illinois, he broke off a 69-yard punt return to open up a two-score lead en route to a victory that marked a turning point in the season after consecutive losses. And in the Bears' first bowl game of the decade against Virginia Tech, Strang scored on a 13-yard reverse to give the Bears a 49-35 fourth quarter advantage. Watching him burn with excitement while hugging (and getting dwarfed by) his teammates after each play, it was practically impossible not to root for him.