Wednesday, September 16, 2009

SF Chronicle: Bears haven't been road warriors

Rusty Simmons

Just two games in, D.J. Holt has embraced his role as the voice of the Cal defense.   He's the middle linebacker, the quarterback of his unit. When he speaks, the decibel level is intensified and honesty is a must.  So he offered this Tuesday: "Travel was definitely a big factor last year. When we played Maryland, we were tired and sluggish, and they jumped on us fast. We weren't ready until the fourth quarter, as you could see.  "That was too late."

Though coach Jeff Tedford insists that he doesn't buy into Holt's theory, he is having the team travel Thursday for Saturday's game at Minnesota, the first time he has left two days early for a road game.

The plan is to erase the feeling that Cal sleep walked through the first half of last season's 35-27 loss at Maryland. The Bears arrived in Maryland the day before the game, immediately went to a walk-through and were forced to sleep early and wake earlier. Before they knew it, they were down 14-0.

"We got down 14 early and people thought, 'It must be because we're sleeping,' " Tedford said. "We were sleeping, but it wasn't because of when we flew in there. I really don't believe that. "I saw our guys and how they approached pregame. We just didn't play well."  It has been a seven-year problem. For all of the sweeping changes Tedford has made in revitalizing the Cal program, his teams rarely have played up to standards on the road since 2002.

He's 35-9 in Berkeley and 19-20 as a visitor. His squads have scored five fewer points and allowed three more on the road on average, often the difference between a win and a loss, and sometimes the difference between a BCS bowl and an afterthought ranking.  "I don't know that we've struggled on the road," Tedford said. "I don't see what the issues are as far as how we prepare or anything else. I can't explain it as far as some magical answer. ... But I don't want to be hard-headed about it."

Though he's not talking about it, Tedford's changes have been felt beyond the travel itinerary.  "We've got stuff all over the locker room, telling us we've got to be mentally tough on the road," linebacker Eddie Young said.  Quarterback Kevin Riley said the piped-in crowd noise for practices have gotten to an "annoying" level. "You have to rally around each other," Riley said. "No matter what else happens, you have to continue to make plays and stay focused."

That could start days earlier than the game, when you're no longer in your same bed and no longer have familiar foods. It could start when the crowd starts to make noise at inopportune times or when being uncomfortable allows a mind to wander. It could start when you're in a new place. "The world is probably different out there," Holt said. "They're going to come out fast, and we have to come out with the same mentality. We can't come in scared or be lackadaisical."

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