BY Steffi Chan and Gerald Nicdao
When the No. 12 Cal football team traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to play the Volunteers last year, it faced probably one of the most hostile crowds in its experience. In the Bears’ 35-18 loss to Tennessee, Neyland Stadium was rocking with 106,009 fans—mostly clad in orange and cheering on its team while intimidating Cal. For this year’s game, the Volunteers travel to Berkeley and Memorial Stadium, and Bears coach Jeff Tedford is hoping for the same kind of volume and support from Cal fans. “I’d like to challenge our fans to make it the same environment that we faced last year at Tennessee,” Tedford said. “Our fans have always answered the bell whenever you’ve asked them to step up. Last year’s Oregon game they stepped up big and they have really turned this into a home field advantage here as far as our crowd’s concern.” To help with the crowd noise, the Cal athletic department will be handing out 50,000 mini-megaphones to fans.
“We need that this year,” Tedford said. “We need to make sure that we can make it difficult on them when they’re on offense and when we’re on offense to tone it down so we can understand and know what we’re doing” If Bears fans think they’re nervous about the football team’s showdown against No. 15 Tennessee this Saturday, they should take a walk in Tedford’s shoes. While he acknowledges that a game against the Vols to open the season—after last year’s loss, no less—may be more risk than potential reward, he insists that he reacts the same way before every game, whatever the level of opponent. “Every game’s the same—I’m a wreck no matter what it is,” Tedford said. “You get a knot in your stomach ... and it stays with you until the kickoff. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s on TV or national or whatever.” Tedford’s tendency to get knots in his stomach is not limited to the days leading up to the game. Even days after Cal's dismal showing in last year’s season opener, Tedford said he had trouble sleeping. “Let’s put it this way: There was a trash truck outside at four in the morning if you want to know,” he said the Tuesday after last year’s game.
For the second straight year, the Cal-Tennessee matchup will be the only game on opening weekend between two ranked opponents. And to prepare for the speed and the physicality of the Volunteers, the Bears had the team’s No.1 offense go against the No. 1 defense for one period during Monday and Tuesday’s practices. “Right out of the gate you’re playing a team that is so fast, that is so physical and so it takes you a little while to get used to do that,” Tedford said. “It’s like how the NFL plays preseason games (to adjust to game speed). We don’t get preseason games. You’re going right into pretty much a bowl game the first time out.” But of course, heading into any game, there is always the concern for injuries. So starting today, Tedford said that the first teams on both sides of the football will not be playing against each other—at least not at such a high tempo. “We simulate as much as you can, the game speed,” Tedford said. “We try to practice that way. But you’re always at risk of injury if you’re going live at practice. But we’ve practiced physical through camp. We got to each other pretty good, but it’s just not the same.” A 10-win season, a dominating victory at a respectable bowl game, four players taken in the NFL draft—no matter, last season’s 35-18 loss to Tennessee stayed in the minds of critics and fans alike and put the Cal football program under more scrutiny than any other loss in Tedford’s five years at the helm.
“(The scrutiny) lasted the whole season,” Tedford said. “We won 10 games last year and I think the question that gets asked the most is ‘Tennessee...?’ Maybe we may get a little, ‘Oh by the way, good job on the bowl game.’” But Tedford refrains from suggesting that the scrutiny is unreasonable. “That’s the worst we’ve ever played,” he said. “In the six or five years (I’ve coached here), I don’t ever remember looking up and being down 35-0 so ... we deserved it. We didn’t play very well.”