Friday, September 28, 2007

SF Chronicle: High-flying Bears, Ducks have horse on horizon

Ray Ratto

This is the other place Jeff Tedford hasn't conquered. The one, you know about - the one down south, the one with the horse. This is the other.  Not that the Cal coach wants to make a big deal of it, which is to say, not that he wants you to make a big deal of it.  "That has nothing to do with us," Tedford said as his team prepared for Oregon in Eugene, where the Bears haven't won since 1987. "All we can do is say what's happened in the last five years, and it seems like the home team has always won. We've had a chance to win there both times we've played up there, and we haven't pulled it off ... it's about this year. That's all that counts. That's what matters."

True enough. But the real question is, how much does it matter? Is this game really the be-all and end-all of the loser's season? Is the winner really expected to run the table around USC? Is the Pac-10 really this top-heavy?  The novelty 8-ball's typical response in the face of such questions is "Reply hazy. Try again." The actual answer, though, is a lot closer to "No, this is an important game, but it isn't a season-breaker."  Now it is a season-breaker if you're thinking that either the Golden Bears or Ducks are a BCS-level team - if you think their lofty ratings of 6 for Cal and 11 for Oregon are a true reflection of the world as it will exist on Dec. 5. Fact is, as slogs go, this is going to be lot harder and longer than the dream world of ESPN GameDay would have us believe. This game is an event, a potentially great game (that, if Cal knows what's good for it, won't be as great as the over-under number of 72 suggests), but it can't be a deal-breaker. Not with so many other potential land mines between now and their own personal red zones.

What is in play here and now is national profiles. The winner looks good on network television and on the midweek chat shows for the upcoming week. Cal can consolidate its place in the lower half of the Top 10 and impress Eastern time zone voters who haven't bothered to watch them since Tennessee. Oregon can be the new Cal, only with the Michigan win replacing the Tennessee win as the signature nonconference victory.

But the actual heavy lifting at Autzen Stadium on Saturday will be done in only one area of endeavor, and it won't be poll position, or profile, or even those dreamy dreams of January football. This game will be won and lost when Cal has the ball, because Cal's best chance to win is running the ball. More specifically, keeping the ball by running it for so long that Oregon can't turn it into a first-team-to-50 coin flip.  Cal's offensive strength was, and is, in its run game. Justin Forsett, Jahvid Best and to a lesser extent Will Ta'ufo'ou not only change games but define them. The passing game is still a fits-and-starts operation, and in any event, Tedford is still a safety-first coach whose safe play also happens to be effervescent.  More than philosophy, though, there is pure pragmatism in this approach. Cal's defense, like Oregon's, is suspect. The defense needs to see as little of Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon's improved magic as possible, and that means being on the field no more than 25 minutes. The Bears need time of possession in the old-fashioned, grind-it-out way, where they keep the ball on long drives, and they do that better on the ground than in the air.

In other words, the much-anticipated offensive show in which the first team to 56 wins works against Cal's best interests, and Tedford knows it. Thus, he has to be the one person in Autzen Stadium who has access to the brake pedal, even if that means he is the buzz-killer in the lemon-yellow T-shirt. This is certainly possible for him. As of Monday, he was the last man in the industry not to know about Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy's pyrospectacular four-minute rant at the Daily Oklahoman writer, and the reason he didn't know is because he has never heard of YouTube. Now that's taking Luddite philosophy to a new level. It also reveals a piece of the inner Tedford - the guy who knows what he believes and believes in what he knows, and the rest of the world goes on around him.

He will be only minimally aware of the hoopla about him and the national demand for a classic Pac-10 game without defense or untried offensive trickery. He knows he has to win to stay in the conference hunt because there are too many other potential issues to navigate after this week (UCLA, Arizona State, and of course, the Horse) to get too giddy about this game. This game, in this town. The other town he doesn't have a piece of yet.

Cal Saturday

Who: Cal (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) vs. Oregon (4-0, 1-0)

Where: Eugene

When: 12:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Channel: 7 Channel: 10 / 810


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