BY Steffi Chan
Last season, when the Cal football team entered Neyland Stadium, home to perennial powerhouse Tennessee, 106,009 rabid fans, and only orange and white as far as the eye could see, the Bears walked onto the field confident and anxious to show off what the nation had judged to be dominating talent. A few hours later, they trudged off the field, dazed, humiliated and humbled—a feeling that stayed with them for the next five hours on the plane, the next four months of the season, and the next eight months of the offseason. A year has passed, and as No. 12 Cal heads into Saturday’s season-opening rematch against the No. 15 Volunteers, this time at Memorial Stadium at 5 p.m., it has not forgotten. “I still have that bitter taste in my mouth,” tailback Justin Forsett said. “And having that long five-hour plane ride back to Berkeley wasn’t that fun.”
It didn’t matter that the Bears went on to win their next eight games, the Big Game, and their bowl game over Texas A&M—in dominating fashion, no less—to end the season with 10 wins. The thrashing that Cal received at the hands of the Vols remained a blemish that it could not forget—perhaps until now. “It’s not really revenge—I think if anything, it’s redemption,” Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. “We didn’t play very well last year when we were there. “It wasn’t that we lost the game last year, I think it was the way we lost the game last year that was the devastating part of it, that hung with us so long.” The devastation was evident when, midway through the third quarter, Tedford looked up to the scoreboard and saw his team trailing 35-0 for the first time in his coaching career at Cal. The final score, 35-18, hardly reflected the extent of dominance that the Volunteers had asserted over the Bears. The loss was taken by the nation as sufficient reason to write off Cal as a legitimate football power, something many players look to rectify with Saturday’s game. “Just because we lost the first game of the season against a really good opponent doesn’t mean we are a joke of a team,” offensive lineman Mike Tepper said.
But the Bears would be wrong to think that they’re the only ones entering the matchup with a need to redeem themselves. Tennessee, a perennial top-10 team, finished the 2006 season with a 9-4 record—one that was, though a marked improvement from its 5-6 record in 2005, still anything but acceptable by the Volunteers’ standards. Add onto that the fact that Phillip Fulmer’s team is coming off a 20-10 loss to Penn State in the 2007 Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, and there is little doubt that they’ll be entering the season opener with an agenda. “It’s a huge game for either of us, no matter how you look at it,” Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge said. “We’re six-point underdogs and we beat them pretty good last year. I think both teams have a little something extra that they’re upset about, a little chip on their shoulder.”
The game may have particular significance for Forsett, who will have something to prove as he takes over the reigns with Marshawn Lynch gone to the NFL. Forsett will be relied upon to execute a running game that finished last year’s contest with 64 yards. But if anyone is in need of redemption, it’s sophomore cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, who was burned by Vols wideout Robert Meachem last year to the tune of 182 yards and two touchdowns. However, with Meachem and fellow graduated receivers Jayson Swain and Bret Smith gone, in addition to the suspension of last year’s leading rusher LaMarcus Coker, the Tennessee offense will hardly resemble that of last season. The new batch of wide receivers will be Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe, who have 29 career catches combined. Tailback Arian Foster, who picked up 322 yards on 91 carries last season, will be taking handoffs from Ainge, despite the broken pinky Ainge suffered on his throwing hand in practice Monday. He practiced yesterday for the first time all week. “The issue with my finger is being pain free,” Ainge said. “But this is football, and we’re never going to be completely pain free. So I’m ready to go.”