Saturday, September 29, 2007

AP: On a day of upsets, Cal leaps into national title hunt

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- The road to the national title took a detour through the scenic Willamette Valley on Saturday.   A string of upsets raised the stakes in a stirring showdown between No. 6 California and 11th-ranked Oregon.  It had already been big enough to draw the largest football crowd in the state's history, 59,273. But a roar swept through the packed Autzen Stadium grandstand when the public-address announcer read a stunning score from Boulder.  

Colorado 27, No. 3 Oklahoma 24.  The Sooners' loss, coupled with fifth-ranked West Virginia's upset at South Florida on Friday night, had opened an express lane to national title contention.  The only question: would Cal or Oregon take it?  California, here they come.  The Golden Bears' pulsating 31-24 victory should leave them No. 3, at worst, when The Associated Press Top 25 comes out on Sunday.  "Thank God we've got a bye (next weekend) so we can dwell on it a little bit," Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. "We don't want to even think about the national championship right now."  Williams paused and smiled, the sweat rolling off his face.  "I mean, it's on our minds," Williams said. "Definitely, we knew coming into this game that if we didn't win this game, there wasn't going to be a chance for it."

And the Bears control their own destiny because top-ranked Southern California visits Berkeley on Nov. 10.  Cal still has to take care of business until then, against Oregon State, at UCLA, at No. 23 Arizona State and against Washington State.  This game, however, sent a loud message about Cal's grit -- and about the caliber of play in the Pac-10, often portrayed as Southern California and the Nine Dwarves.  At halftime, with Oregon ahead 10-3, it looked as if a Big Ten game had broken out. The only thing missing was a silo behind the stadium.  The second half was more like it, with the teams combining for six touchdowns. It looked like there would be a seventh until Oregon's Cameron Colvin fumbled trying to stretch the ball over the goal line with 16 seconds to go, a play that was upheld on a lengthy video review.  Because the game took place in daylight, fans in the East didn't have to stay up until the middle of the night to see it, and ESPN's GameDay crew was here to spread the word.  "You can never tell with people watching us on the East Coast," said tailback Justin Forsett, who ran for 101 tough yards. "But I hope they saw this one."  It began to rain moments after the game ended, but that didn't stop wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins, along with tailback Jahvid Best, from leaping a low restraining wall and diving into the Cal band.

"I saw West Virginia lose last night," said Jackson, who revved up his Heisman Trophy candidacy with 11 catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns. "I know it was a big thing for us to come in here and get this victory. It's crucial for us."  The Bears had already served notice they were serious about contending for a national title in a decisive 45-31 victory over Tennessee on Sept. 1. That result lost a little luster when the Volunteers got steamrolled by Florida a few weeks later.  It will take a while for this win to lose luster. Autzen Stadium is one of the West Coast's most intimidating venues, a place so tough the mascot was suspended for one game after beating up the Houston Cougar earlier this month.

This is the same howling den where Oklahoma lost last season, albeit with a little help from the refs.  Cal marched in and, after enduring some early bumps, marched out with its championship aspirations intact.  Coach Jeff Tedford beat his former boss, Mike Bellotti, in Eugene for the first time in three tries.  "This place is so difficult; it's a great crowd, and the noise," Tedford said. "It's just real gratifying to win here."  Even though Cal conceded 497 yards, it showed a toughness not normally associated with Pac-10 teams. Cal harassed Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon into his first two interceptions of the season.  The Golden Bears defense was without playmaking linebacker Zack Follett, sidelined with a neck injury. Meanwhile, defensive line anchor Matt Malele, who has a foot injury, was limited to one assist.

"This win lets the world know that Cal can play some football," Hawkins said. "This win proved to our team that we can do it."  For Oregon, the loss stung, but it's hard to imagine Oregon plummeting in the polls after taking the No. 6 team down to the final seconds, especially after No. 7 Texas and No. 10 Rutgers lost to unrated foes.  "It's a long season," Dixon said. "Anything can happen in college football. You never know."  Said Best, "Oregon is a good team too. They deserve to be high in the rankings."  Just not as high as Cal, the newest national title contender on the West Coast.  "No team can beat Cal," Williams said. "Except for Cal."

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