Sunday, September 23, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Forsett is Cal's most crucial player

By Ann Killion

He doesn't have the big name. The flashy moves. The Heisman Trophy campaign. Those belong to his current teammates, just as they once belonged to the guy he replaced. The one who is now earning a paycheck with the Buffalo Bills.

But Justin Forsett is the most important player on the Cal football team.  If you disagree, you weren't watching the Bears' Pacific-10 opener against Arizona on Saturday.  Toward the end of the first half, Forsett was banged up on an incomplete screen pass and limped off the field. But everything was cool with the sixth-ranked Bears, right? They had a commanding 31-10 halftime lead.  But while Forsett sat out almost all of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, a football game broke out. Arizona stormed back. The Bears' offense could not sustain a drive, and Forsett's replacement, James Montgomery, saw the ball punched out and recovered by the Wildcats. All of a sudden the score was 38-27, and memories of last year's devastating collapse against Arizona were surfacing. And so the guys with the big names and flashy moves, the one with the Heisman Trophy campaign, knew exactly what was needed. DeSean Jackson went to Forsett on the sideline. "I told him to go to Coach and let him know he was ready," Jackson said. "It's crucial having him in the backfield." Lavelle Hawkins had told Forsett to take a seat and rest earlier, "but then I told him, 'Please get up.' "

Coach Jeff Tedford didn't need much convincing.

"At that point we needed to run the football," Tedford said. "They were making a serious comeback. And Justin really gave us a spark when we needed it. "He's so reliable and solid as far as hanging onto the ball," the coach added. "He has great vision and runs so hard. He's a warrior." This was one of the questions coming into the season: Could the Bears replace Marshawn Lynch, the superstar who led the conference in rushing and scoring? Through the first four games of the season, the answer is unequivocally yes. Forsett came into Saturday's game leading the conference in rushing and scoring. "I did?" he said. "I didn't know that." Feel free to completely believe him. Forsett is not only a punishing runner who carries defenders around like a chunky fashion accessory, he's also the humble son of a Texas clergyman and beloved by his teammates. "There's no better kid than Justin Forsett," Tedford said. "He's the most unselfish, hardworking team guy that there is." Which made him the perfect candidate for his role as back-seat back for the past three seasons. He came to Cal in the same class as Lynch, when J.J. Arrington was the starting tailback. Though he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in 2005, Forsett was completely overshadowed by Lynch. Last season his production dropped to 626 yards while Lynch was the headliner. "We knew he was going to get his chance sooner or later," Tedford said. "But he's probably glad Marshawn came out" for the NFL draft. Actually, Forsett says he wasn't. He misses his friend, who he talks to every week. He said he wasn't just counting the days until he could be the man in the backfield. "I wouldn't say I was happy he left," Forsett said. "He's like my brother. It goes beyond football - that's just a small part of life. I would gladly have taken the same role I was asked to take in the past." Not that he minds being the starter.

"Having more responsibility and being a leader on the team, that's something I've been wanting for a long time," he said. "I've always believed in my abilities and knew I could play." He has already had three 100-yard rushing days this season. On Saturday he rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown came on a direct snap to Forsett, with quarterback Nate Longshore split out on the left side. Forsett took the snap, put his head down and carried tacklers 9 yards into the end zone for the Bears' first score. Cal has yet to put together a complete game, and will face a challenge next weekend when it travels to Oregon. The defense had some problems with Arizona's no-huddle offense (the Wildcats threw the ball 62 times). Tedford said he was concerned about kickoff coverages and some of the dumb penalties late in the game. And he was very concerned about the offense's ability to maintain drives and eat up the clock. But those latter concerns faded when Forsett came up to him in the fourth quarter. "I told him I was ready," Forsett said. "Nothing was going to stop me from getting in there. Our win was in jeopardy." Forsett came in and took the ball, gaining 12 yards and a first down. Later in the drive he ripped off 8 yards, then 15 yards. On second-and-goal he again took a direct snap and ran 3 yards for the touchdown. Cal 45, Arizona 27. That's where the score would stay, and everyone in the stadium could breathe a sigh of relief. The game was in good hands - the hands of the Bears' most important player.

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