Cal players, coaches set for loud crowd at Autzen
By GREG BEACHAM
BERKELEY, Calif. — Brandon Hampton has a grudging respect for the Oregon students who pack Autzen Stadium, even while he grits his teeth at the incessant yelling and the mean jeering — and those confounded, nonstop duck calls. "Those students are just behind you, all the time, right on your back," the California safety said. "They're great. It's like they're almost on the sideline with you." Hampton didn't even know that the real Oregon student section is over behind the Ducks' own sideline, near the west end zone of that remarkably boisterous field. Those noisemakers behind the visiting bench are mostly just regular quacks — and they'll be out in force Saturday for a big chapter in one of college football's most underrated rivalries.
When No. 6 Cal (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) visits 11th-ranked Oregon (4-0, 1-0), it's more than a conference showdown that will set the early tone in the annual race to dethrone USC.
It's another meeting of two strikingly similar programs with intertwined histories, coaching staffs and recruiting pools — and a 2-2 record against each other since former Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford flew away and went south for the fall. Though they're separated by 500 miles, the schools feel a lot closer together during football season. It starts with the students, since Oregon has such a sizable population of Northern California kids — who couldn't get into Cal, the Bears' wiseacre fans say — that some call it the University of California at Eugene. And the programs' connections are even more labyrinthine. Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon and receiver Cameron Colvin are East Bay natives, as is Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who also employed Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory before he left with Tedford to revive the Golden Bears' slumbering program with strategies and management skills honed in Eugene. For example, Tedford immediately redesigned the Bears' uniforms when he arrived in Berkeley. Last season, the Bears debuted their garish yellow jerseys — just like something the fashion-forward Ducks would wear — for their 45-24 win over Oregon.
Most of the key players on both teams were recruited by both schools, with Cal gradually denting Bellotti's long-standing pipeline to the East Bay's richest talent. Tedford and Bellotti are still perfectly friendly, but both would love to gain a decisive edge in a rivalry that's featured two wins apiece for the home team since Tedford defected in 2002 (the schools didn't play that year). All the players that Tedford recruited to Oregon finally have left the school, making this meeting a bit less personal — but still just as tough in front of the crazy Autzen fans. "The crowd there is unbelievably educated about when to be loud and when to calm down when they have the ball," Tedford said. "It's a very, very tough environment with the noise and communicating. It was kind of different my first year back there, to be on the other side." Tedford lost in his first two trips to Oregon with Cal, but both games were frenetic, high-scoring affairs that went down to the final minute. The Bears haven't won at Autzen since 1987 — a fact that Oregon's fans won't hesitate to cite for them.
"Twenty-year streaks have nothing do with these guys," Tedford said. "Some of them weren't even born 20 years ago, so it has nothing to do with them. It's about this year. That's what counts. That's all that matters." There's no shortage of motivation this season, however. Oregon could be jealous of the national attention and higher ranking bestowed on Cal, while the Bears were surprised to hear they're a point-spread underdog despite their lofty poll spot. "We're not really worrying about it," Oregon linebacker Jerome Boyd said. "We're just worrying about ourselves. We like the fact that they're coming to our stadium, and we like the fact that (ESPN) Gameday is coming, but who wouldn't like that, you know?"
Though both schools are ranked going into their meeting for the third straight season, the hype and the connections won't obscure a meeting between two schools with exceptional offenses and still-evolving defenses. "It's one of the loudest, if not the loudest, stadium in the Pac-10," Cal right guard Noris Malele said. "It's always a fun place to play, because they get on you from the start for everything. It's a tough atmosphere, but that makes it fun as well. The noise is out there, so we've got to do what we can to stay together."