By Steve “Parrothead Vol” Wilmoth
Following a 5-6 season in 2005, the Tennessee Vols spoke throughout the following off-season about redemption and getting the program back to a championship level. Those off-season early-morning running sessions and demanding weight room training were made easier by the fact that the highly regarded California Golden Bears were coming to Knoxville to open the 2006 season. ESPN analyst Lee Corso even suggested that Cal might be the best team in college football. It did nothing but get the Vols even more ready to play and they responded by playing one of their better games in several years. It was easily the best game they played all last season. For California, it was an embarrassment. Ranked ninth coming into the contest, but down 35-0 early…and on national television, no less. The final score was a misleading 35-18. Might the shoe be on the other foot as the teams prepare for a re-match in Berkeley? “It’s definitely been a thorn in our side,” said senior safety Thomas DeCoud. “It’s been burning in our souls. We’ve devoted a lot of hard work and attention towards Tennessee to protect our house when they come to Berkeley.” DeCoud was one of the few Bears that had good game in the loss. He recorded a game-high 13 tackles.
“We definitely could have played a lot better and played a more competitive game,” added DeCoud. “We just came out and didn’t have a very good game.” To hear some other Bears talk about the game, you’d think they’d lost the game the minute they stepped off the bus. “I think the shear size of that place [Neyland Stadium] was intimidating,” said California quarterback Nate Longshore. “It was amazing to see a stadium that big.” Cal linebacker Zach Follet, a Butkus Award candidate, said “the atmosphere was hard on some of the young guys.” “Tenneesse is hard place to play and there were 108,000 orange fans in the stadium,” remembered DeCoud. For Cal and its high-octane offense, getting a chance to play against an SEC team was a learning experience. “It was disappointment,” said DeCoud about the loss. “But we grew from it and it made us a better team throughout the rest of the season. The Cal offense managed 18 meaningless points in the latter stages of last year’s game, but rebounded to score 41 or more points each of the next five contests. After an 11-for-21 performance for a paltry 85 yards, Longshore was benched. He returned the next week and ended up throwing for over 3,000 yards on the season.
“Obviously the loss stuck with us for awhile,” noted Longshore. “We still keep getting asked about it and we probably will all year. It was a pretty sweet stadium to play at. We learned a lot at that game, even though it didn’t go our way.” What the Bears learned is that the SEC has teams that are big, strong and fast…like Tennessee. California also learned it had a ways to go to be the same, but was determined to get there. “I think we’re a much bigger, stronger, faster defense,” explained DeCoud. “We get to the ball and tackle a lot better. Everybody’s giving it a 100% in the weight room as well as the film room.” The motivation this off-season has been much the same for the Bears as it was the Vols last year at this time. “I think it [the loss] pushed me, personally, through every rep,” said Cal's Follett. “I’ll never forget that five-hour plane ride home. When you get beat the way we did on national television, that’s going to stick with you.” “There was lot of hurt [following last year’s game],” said new Cal starting running back Justin Forsett. “It’s the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in in my life. It’s driven me all season long and in the off-season. I don’t want to have any regrets. I’ve done everything I can to get ready to play Tennessee.” Longshore expects a similar effort by his teammates. “We didn’t really give ourselves a very good representation last year, but we learned a lot, including how to work to be a step quicker,” explained Longshore.
This season, DeCoud, and his Bear teammates know better what do expect when the Vols come to town. “Size and speed,”said DeCoud. “We’re going into the game knowing what to expect. We hadn’t played the SEC before. We’re ready now.”
DeCoud also hopes Memorial Stadium turns into the same home field advantage the Vols enjoyed last season. “It was a learning experience for us to play over there, but it’s going to be just as tough on them,” explained DeCoud. “Our fans are really excited about getting a chance to play them again.” DeCoud seems just as excited about getting another shot at the Vols. “We know Tennessee is going to be a great opponent and it gives us a change to know where we stand. If we can get a win it could set us up for big things the rest of the season.”