Sunday, September 23, 2007

AP: Cal prepares for defining trip to Oregon

With the preliminaries finished and last season's scores all settled, Lavelle Hawkins can't wait to find out whether No. 6 California is a national title contender or just another good bunch of Golden Bears.  "I started thinking about Oregon in the fourth quarter," Hawkins said after the Bears (4-0, 1-0) opened their Pac-10 schedule Saturday with a comfortable 45-27 win over Arizona.  Hawkins' sentiments were echoed by his teammates, who realize Cal's meeting with the 11th-ranked Ducks this weekend in Eugene serves the same purpose as last season's game between the West Coast powers, won convincingly by Cal.  The winner stays on track for Bowl Championship Series consideration and stakes its claim as top-ranked USC's biggest rival for the conference crown, while the loser starts thinking about the Holiday Bowl.  At least that's the way most of Cal's players see it, and their coaches won't dissuade them.  "The win over Tennessee was big, but conference games are always bigger, and Oregon is one of our biggest rivals," said safety Thomas DeCoud, who had an interception, a fumble recovery and a sack during an outstanding game against the Wildcats.

"They're a great team, and that game means a lot," DeCoud said. "They run the same kind of offense (as Arizona does), but I think they do it a little better. It's definitely good to play against a team that likes to chuck the rock. That's a defensive back's dream."  Cal's victory over Arizona was its second win over a school that beat the Bears in 2006, following a season-opening victory over Tennessee. The September schedule provided easy motivational fodder for Cal's coaches, who must now keep their players focused on the rigors of Pac-10 play.  "I feel pretty sure what our potential can be, but no, we haven't reached that yet," coach Jeff Tedford said. "We've shown flashes at times, but we're not there yet."  Cal averaged 41.5 points in its first four games, showing off an offense with seemingly no significant weaknesses. Even the rebuilding offensive line has been outstanding, allowing only three sacks and opening plenty of holes for tailback Justin Forsett.  "We've played good, but I don't think we've played a full game yet," said Forsett, who has seven TDs while averaging 121 yards rushing. "I think we're one step away from having that complete game."  Though the Bears' defense doesn't have stellar statistics, coordinator Bob Gregory is happy with its play -- particularly after losing three starters to injuries. Defensive linemen Matt Malele (foot) and Rulon Davis (foot) and linebacker Zack Follett (neck) all might not be back for the trip to Oregon.  Cal has faced three no-huddle spread offenses in its first four weeks, with another wide-open game coming up Saturday.  "When you're in a spread, offenses are just going to move the ball," Gregory said. "That's just the nature of the game. I've been proud of a lot of things we've done, but it doesn't get any easier."

The rest of Tedford's concerns seem fairly minor, he acknowledges. Cal's 14 penalties for 121 yards against Arizona were the most called on the Bears in Tedford's six seasons at the school, though the coach said several calls were "ticky-tack."  Tedford also would prefer to get the ball to DeSean Jackson more often, but the junior playmaker had just three catches for 39 yards against Arizona, giving him 17 receptions for 151 yards without a touchdown -- though he has scored on a punt return and a run.  But Jackson doesn't seem discouraged four games into a season he began with Heisman Trophy aspirations. He even thought of another score to settle: Cal's 27-20 overtime loss at Oregon in 2005.   "I think we've still got work to do," Jackson said. "It's going to be a great game at Oregon. We lost there my freshman year, so we've got to be thinking about that."


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