Friday, September 21, 2007

Contra Costa Times: One more game for 'redemption'

ONLY A MATTER OF HOURS now until Cal vs. Arizona and the best kind of football weekend there is -- one enhanced by boiling blood and a trail of tears. We can sense your skepticism from here. But we assure you, Arizona is indeed on the schedule this week. Its players and coaches are likely settling into the Claremont as we speak. Or maybe it's the bodily fluids that are giving you pause. If so, allow us to explain:

See, football is a game of intense emotion. Either that, or players and coaches perceive it to be a game of intense emotion. Either way, it delivers them to the same place -- believing it is critically important to take the field with tears in their eyes. And if that requires a little psychological sleight of hand -- say, contriving a faux controversy, or forcibly removing a nose hair during the national anthem, so be it.  Often, that emotion presents itself in a more natural manner. This is especially true for teams of dubious ability, who find themselves properly motivated on an ongoing basis by the knowledge that a) the team they are about to play is better than they are, b) they aren't very good to begin with, and/or c) before the game is over, it's possible they could be pawing through the grass looking for their teeth. The better a team is, the more trouble it can have reaching an emotional crescendo by the opening kickoff. When a team is ranked No. 6 in the country, as Cal is now, the quest for emotion can take a desperate turn.  The Bears have been fortunate so far this season. Their first game was against Tennessee. They lost to Tennessee last season. Ergo, this was a revenge game. (Coach Jeff Tedford called it a "redemption" game. The House of Mullets should split hairs with such precision.) The titanic nature of the first game led perfectly into the second game, against unheralded Colorado State. That became a trap game, a potential letdown after the huge get-up.  Last week's game wasn't so simple. There was no potential letdown, no recent history with Louisiana Tech upon which to seize. Sometimes the student section can help out by concocting demeaning chants about the opposing school or its more famous alumni. Not so in this case, without suitable rhymes for "Ruston" or "Bradshaw."  It was an uninspiring scenario, with predictable results. Cal won 42-12 in a game more competitive and less interesting than might be considered optimal. Afterward, the Bears engaged in the reflexive and cleansing act of self-loathing. You may recall the 49ers doing the same thing back when they were an NFL powerhouse and marked time between Dallas games by berating themselves after unremarkable efforts against various Atlantas, Arizonas and Tampa Bays.  At any rate, Cal should have no such problem achieving a blood-boiling, teary-eyed state Saturday. Not given last year's loss to Arizona -- that was a lookahead game, by the way, coming the week before a highly anticipated matchup with USC -- in which the Bears played themselves out of a Rose Bowl berth.

That makes Saturday's game a revenge game. Or a redemption game. Whichever, it was such obvious motivational plutonium that Tedford was already backing away from it early this week.  "It's not something that we're going to talk about every day," he said at his Tuesday press conference. "It's not so much about Arizona. It's still about us." There's something to that. Cal had three sure touchdowns go awry against Arizona last season -- via penalty, an unforced facemask-plant and a misstep along the sideline. The Bears also had two interceptions negated by penalty on what proved to be Arizona's game-tying touchdown drive. Tedford said he addressed the subject with his players the day after their win over Louisiana Tech. There is evidence to suggest there is a slight difference between what Tedford said and what his players heard. "It is one of those games that we have in the back of our mind," guard Brian De La Puente said, harking back to last season.  "That game was something that really hurt what we wanted to accomplish at the end of the season," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "As a player, it's something that makes me want to win this game. Letting that game slip away from us was tough. Just knowing that something wasn't working quite right, and that we weren't quite the same team that we knew we were was tough for me personally." Kind of like Ethel Merman used to sing: There's no business like unfinished business. "We're just going to try to remember what it felt like last year," Tedford said. The nose hair thing would be less painful.


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