Sunday, September 02, 2007

AP: Cal carries Pac-10 banner, sticks it to SEC

Bears make Vols pay for offseason comments by LSU's Miles

BERKELEY, Calif. - You were saying, Coach Miles?  No. 12 California answered LSU coach Les Miles’ barbs with a resounding 45-31 victory over 15th-ranked Tennessee on Saturday night. “We definitely answered a lot of questions about the toughness of the Pac-10, but more importantly the toughness of this ballclub,” said Cal linebacker Worrell Williams, who returned a fumble 44 yards for the game’s first score.  The Golden Bears earned the victory, but every school in the oft-maligned Pac-10 got a lift from this one. You hope Miles had a chance to catch it, too, after drubbing Southeastern Conference powerhouse Mississippi State 45-0 on Thursday night.  Miles had stirred up passions on the typically laid-back West Coast when he said Southern California would have a “much easier road to travel” to the BCS title game because it plays in the soft-serve Pac-10. Miles didn’t use the term “soft-serve,” but he might as well have. “They’re going to play real knock-down, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford — some real juggernauts,” Miles said of the Trojans. Cal coach Jeff Tedford shrugged when asked about Miles’ remarks.  “I don’t need to respond to his comments,” Tedford said.

His players did it for him. That Cal-Berkeley juggernaut left tire tracks all over the Vols’ white road uniforms. A couple of hours before the game, a plane towing a banner reading “SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS” buzzed over Memorial Stadium. That was a bit like poking a sleeping Bear. But Cal had plenty of motivation already after being routed by the Volunteers 35-18 in Knoxville in last season’s opener — a result that dogged Cal for the rest of a fine season. Tennessee was by far the tougher team that day, and the Golden Bears promised to match them blow-for-blow in the rematch. Linebacker Zack Follett set the tone when he nailed Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge in the back in the first quarter, forcing the fumble that Williams picked up and returned 44 yards for a touchdown. The Bears also flexed their muscles in a third-quarter goal-line stand, when defensive back Bernard Hicks stopped Vols receiver Lucas Taylor on an option play at the California 1. So much for the idea that the SEC has cornered the market on toughness.  “We came out and hit them as hard as we could, and they folded,” Follett said. “In the third quarter, their ’O’ line was taking a knee, so I don’t ever want to hear that again.” But football is about more than hitting the other guy in the mouth. It helps to be able to run too.

As Tennessee found out on DeSean Jackson’s 77-yard punt return for a touchdown, there is speed, and then there is Pac-10 speed. It was telling that some of Tennessee’s biggest plays came from Ainge and tailback Arian Foster, both of whom went to high school in Pac-10 territory. Ainge, a cool senior from Hillsboro, Ore., completed his first 10 passes. This was the sort of intersectional showdown college football needs, especially on the season’s first weekend, when there’s no NFL and the colleges have the spotlight to themselves. Unfortunately, many of the big dogs would rather buy victories in September as hedges against spending the holidays at home. So the season opened with a glut of Rutgers-Buffalo, Louisville-Murray State and Penn State-Florida International. Appalachian State’s stunning victory over fifth-ranked Michigan broke the mold, but the big upset in the Big House on Saturday was the exception that proves the rule in these early season routs.  That’s why Tennessee-Cal was such a big deal. It was the only game pitting Top 25 teams on Saturday.

Strawberry Canyon was buzzing an hour before the Bears and Vols kicked off on a dazzling, 80-degree afternoon. Tennessee sold its allotment of 7,500 tickets, but there were at least 10,000 orange-clad Vols fans in the Memorial Stadium sellout crowd of 72,516, some of them bobbing like lonely buoys in a blue-and-gold sea. Tennessee seemed to bring everyone but Smokey, its bluetick coonhound mascot. Why did they leave the dawg in Knoxville?  “Too far,” one Tennessee official said. Smokey didn’t miss much as Tennessee fell to 2-7-1 all-time in California. And he’ll be back on the sidelines when the Vols return to safer territory — the SEC.  “This might hurt us nationally, but what we want is the SEC championship, so we’re still in the hunt for that,” Ainge said.

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