More Big

Last season in the Big Game, Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory unleashed an all-out, pass rush attack that produced nine sacks. I see more of the same this season. Opponents have piled up 46 sacks so the Cardinal would appear to be in trouble.

Stanford has averaged a horrible 65.1 yards rushing per game. It doesn’t take a Stanford grad to figure out that if Cal stuffs the running game early, it can turn loose the dogs. I can’t see the Cardinal gaining any rushing yards against Cal’s defense. It just isn’t going to happen.

So the key for the Bears is taking care of the ball. No turnovers like USC. If the game turns into a field position battle early, Cal is going to win that game. Even though the STanford defense has played better, Cal should be able to move the ball against it somewhat. If Cal stuffs Stanford early and gets a few first downs, the game is going to be played on Stanford’s side of the field.

Then, as the game wears on, Stanford’s defense is going to wear out. Cal should dominate the fourth quarter.

In talking with the Bears, they seem legitimately excited about the Big Game and the Holiday Bowl. I think that bye week was a great thing for them. They want to finish big, and in my opinion, I think they will. Stanford’s offense has been terrible and A&M is going to have a hard time moving the ball on the ground against Cal. I think the Bears are getting two very favorable matchups to build momentum for 2007.

Coach Tedford has been extra determined after practice this week, refusing to even discuss A&M. He wants things to go well in this Stanford game. The guy hates to lose, and even more than that, he hates to lose games where his team is a big favorite. After the USC game, a reporter asked Coach Tedford is the loss was the most disappointing of his career. He said no, the Arizona game was.

It will be Marshawn Lynch’s final game at Memorial Stadium in all probability, so look for him to have a big effort. Even though Stanford has a fairly solid defense, I would imagine Lynch will roll up 150 yards rushing and a couple of TDs.

Stanford has played pretty tough against the Bears in the first half of games with Tedford leading the show. I don’t expect that to happen this season. I think Cal will have this game under control by halftime.

It should be great weather and a sell-out crowd. It will be interesting to see what kind of send-off the home fans will give the Bears. Certainly, everyone expects a Cal victory. Will the crowd be able to generate the kind of emotion that a Big Game deserves?


Bigger than Big Game?

So has Cal come so far that there are more important issues than the Big Game?

It is kind of interesting to consider.

At this time of year, Coach Tedford and staff are thinking about nothing but trying to win the next two games. Wins are very important because they will attract attention in the off-season with most of the offense coming back and tons of talent on defense. I have talked about the importance of high rankings going into the next season, and off season hype, and that certainly applies here.

That being said, there also is a school of thought that the time to begin preparing for next season is now. Is it time to work tight end Cameron Morrah into the lineup even if it means not putting your top 11 players on the field right now. Morrah is going to be a force next season, and some extended playing time would bring him up to speed.

How about Mike Tepper? This guy figures to be a big part of things next season. Will snaps right now give Cal a better chance at a title in 2007? How about getting Kevin Bemoll into the lineup? Perhaps some game action would spark his off-season workouts and propel him to some big things.

Obviously, everyone would like to see Zack Follett on the field more. And how about guys like Mika Kane? Is it time to play these guys even if it doesn’t give you your best shot at winning right now.

I’m kind of on the fence about this topic. Certainly, seniors have earned the right to finish their seasons in style. These seniors have meant the world to Cal’s football program.

On the other hand, it’s tough sending out novice players in an opener against Tennessee. It will be a bowl type atmosphere. What would be better than playing some of the rookies in a bowl?

I guess this kind of balancing act is why they pay coach Tedford the big bucks.


Happy Thanksgiving

Usually on Thanksgiving Day, I try to do a story on a Cal athlete who gives back to the community. There have been many fun stories over the years with a behind the scenes look at student/athletes and their good will toward less fortunate people.

This Thanksgiving, though, I decided to do a story on Joe Roth, the Cal quarterback who died of cancer shortly after his final game at Cal. That was 30 years ago this week. It’s a story worth telling and I hope you enjoy it in tomorrow’s (Thursday) Contra Costa Times.

As a writer, when you do interviews for a story like this one, you learn some much more than your readers. In a newspaper format, it simply is impossible to pass along all the information that you gather. In this instance, there were many stories that touched my heart that just couldn’t be included. I will say that having lost several family members to cancer, I have a new-found respect for coach Mike White. From all accounts, the character he showed during this tragedy was extraordinary. Living with a person who is dying of cancer is an extremely grueling, horrible experience. And yet, there is a strength that comes out of such an experience that should be cherished.
So here are a few things I couldn’t fit into the story.
Cal rugby coach Jack Clark, who was an offensive tackle during Roth’s senior year of 1976, talked about how Joe Roth always was so cool in the huddle. Of course, Roth was pretty sure he had unbeatable cancer during his senior year.
Clark said, “I remember one day at practice, somebody jumped off sides the second time in a row. Everyone was screaming and yelling. In the huddle, Joe says, let’s get it together. Joe said, relax guys. For a moment there, I was thinking, geez, Joe, you should be yelling at somebody. We were a good team used to executing. But Joe never overreacted.”
Clark surmised that a guy facing cancer wasn’t going to get too bent out of shape by a penalty.

Clark remember the funeral service for Roth. “I will never, ever forget,” Clark said. “They played “Do You Believe in Miracles” That was the song. I almost have to pull off the road when that song plays on the radio. It was so sad to see all that promise cut down before our eyes.

Fred Besana talked about Roth’s courage in fighting the illness. “He had a clot in his leg and he was going to have them remove it,” Besana said. “He was fighting. But then there was a clot in the other leg, and it was time to go home (to die).”

Besana said that his respect for coach Mike White grew by leaps and bounds during that time. “You always have nefarious thoughts about coaches,” Besana said. “But the coaches were exceptional (concerning Joe). This one came from the heart.”

Cal assistant, and future head coach, Roger Theder said that his best quarterback was Steve Bartkowski, but Roth had the quickest release. Theder told a story about a guy who brought his invention from UC-Davis. It was a series of lights that lit up, meaning open receiver. A quarterback would drop back, then hit the targets as they lit up. Theder said Roth was amazingly quick at hitting the targets.

Theder also talked about how quickly Roth made friends. When the news was announced that Roth had cancer, Theder said Roth got an immediate call from Tony Dungy, who had met Roth at the East-West Shrine game.

Lena Roth, who now lives in Washington, still calls her son just a “plain, ordinary kid.”

Roth was a Punt, Pass and Kick champ as a 12-year-old.

For those of you who have read this far (and even those who didn’t), I wish you a wonderful holiday.



In Ted’s head

So if misery enjoys company, Cal fans should have been up at Memorial Stadium on Tuesday having lunch with Jeff Tedford. The guy obviously is in a lot of pain.

I remember talking with coach Tedford when he first signed on at Cal. This was a Fresno State guy by way of Oregon and a guy looking to make a mark and leave. Geez, what a difference. This guy is bleeding blue and gold these days, because there was blue running out all over the floor in the Hall of Fame room on Tuesday.

Tedford met with a few members of the press to talk a bit about the USC loss. He has spent most of the hours since the game wondering what he could have done differently. He looks at things such as the call on third and inches. He is questioning himself, obviously preparing for the next time he has to make the same call.

But, while he does question a few calls, watching film brings him back to the fact that he played a tremendous team and that opponent never cracked in terms of turning over the ball. USC never gave Cal the chance to pounce. Cal,meanwhile, turned over the ball three times.

That didn’t change the fact that Tedford was been hurting the past few days, coming so close to a goal he wanted for his players. He also admitted he could feel a lot of hostility around the program as many calls came in questioning his ability to coach. “I took a lot of nasty phone calls,” he said. “But that’s part of the deal.”

His overall mood started to swing toward the positive, though, when a Cal backer called and reminded him that five years ago, nobody would have cared anyway. It had to get back that perspective.

“For people to be disappointed means they care,” Tedford was told by the backer.

It was feedback that struck a note with Tedford, who often tells his players that if he stops yelling at them, then it’s time to worry.

Tedford doesn’t have time to dwell on regret, though. He has two big recruiting weekends coming up. That’s a lot of work because Cal is competing with the USCs, Floridas, Nebraskas of the college football world these days.

Some of that recruiting involves telling those recruits that new facilities are due shortly. Tedford said he has confidence that Cal’s administration is working hard to get it done.

I asked Coach Tedford if he thought his offense was a true reflection of himself during the games now that he doesn’t call many plays anymore. “I think Mike (Dunbar) has done a good job,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the beast that you say ‘Darn, I wish I would have done that different.’ But I am very happy with Mike’s preparation and philosophy. He calls most of the plays and I make some suggestions.

I asked Coach Tedford if he thought the play calling was conservative against USC. “We threw the ball 38 times,” he said. “The game seemed to swing quickly in the fourth quarter. That’s why I said that you have to keep up.
“But you have to do what you can do to attack what they have going on defense.”


No roses, just thorns

Being a Cal fan this week is going to be tough. You are going to be sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table and your USC relatives are going to shove stuffing into your face. Same old Cal, they will say. No guts, no glory. Get an offense.

You will be pushing your corn around your plate, and thinking what to say. The correct response should be, “Pass the turkey.”

No, Cal didn’t get it done on Saturday. The main bone of contention eating at Cal fans was the Bears fairly conservative offensive plan.

Cal should have taken a few more chances. I think that is clear. Whether it means going on fourth and an inch, calling a pass on third and an inch, faking a field goal, having the offense on the field instead of trying a 55-yard field goal, or whatever, a few chances were in order.

Of course, there was another team on the field and no one seems to realize it just happens to be in midst of one of the most dominant runs in the history of college football. USC took away most of Cal’s running game by playing better at the line of scrimmage than Cal’s offensive line, they doubled DeSean Jackson most of the game and dared Cal quarterback Nate Longshore and the Bears’ other wide receivers to beat them. That didn’t happen.

But as disappointing as the loss was to Old Blues, they have to realize a few other things. Cal had knocked on the door of the Pac-10 title in two of the past three seasons. The Bears have five consecutive winning seasons, four consecutive bowls. They are being talked about on the East Coast.

It is a new day and age for Cal football. Those guys who say Cal will never beat USC aren’t paying attention. Those were two pretty evenly matched teams out there in terms of talent. While inferior teams often have to trick better teams to win, Cal had the talent to slug it out with USC through most of that game. An inch or two here or there could have meant a different outcome.

USC remains, at this time, a better team. But Tedford has stockpiled talent and that factor is evident. There is no “Same old Cal” in play here. This is a different Cal team, heading in a new direction.

Cal fans, who used to wait for the Big Game to save the season, are now having their emotions crushed when the Bears fail to win a Pac-10 title. The next step is coming. It’s not an easy one.

It will take a quarterback who can take over a game, and Cal hasn’t had that happen the past two seasons (in a big game). But Longshore is developing. He will be a different quarterback next year than he was this season. If you wonder about that one, look at history.

Cal’s biggest problem this season? In my opinion, Cal never did establish an identity on offense. The Bears, as a team, were a great running team, and they never established any consistency in their passing game. Their line pass blocks well, but doesn’t blow open holes. Short yardage has been a pain. Maybe losing those three NFL players off the offensive line meant more than anyone was ready to admit.

Coach Tedford never did develop Cameron Morrah, and that’s too bad. This guy could have been slipped into the lineup on an obvious running play with two tight ends, then sent deep. He might not be the best blocker, but he can run.

The tricks never seemed to work very well this season, for whatever reason. Maybe that’s why Cal played it so close to the vest on Saturday.

The bottom line is that the program has turned into a contender in a relatively short period of time. That being said, it’s obvious there might be considerable pain before the next step is taken.


Rosey future?

So here you are Cal fans, it’s November and coach Jeff Tedford has the Golden Bears playing a game that will decide the Rose Bowl. Athletic director Sandy Barbour must have wanted just this very thing when she tied Tedford to Cal with a new contract and the now famous “Golden Handcuffs” which give him an additional $2 million if he finishes his current contract.

And with the backdrop of the City of Berkeley suing to stop construction of Tedford’s new facilities, facilities that would keep the ball rolling forward in terms of football at the university, and the UC system pausing for a moment to decide the proper course of action, the Bears are trying to enter territory not seen since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Of course, since I’ve been around, a relatively short time considering Cal began playing football in 1882, it seems that it’s always something … something negative … getting in the way of a successful burst of sports energy at Cal.

There was Bruce Snyder taking the football team to unfamiliar heights only to see Bob Bock(releasemy)rath screw it up by letting Snyder slip away to Arizona State. The basketball team landed Jason Kidd, but the players didn’t like the coach. The new coach, Todd Bozeman, was liked by the players, but why not? He was slipping them cash. The football team landed Steve Mariucci, but his agenda caused him to skip over Cal like a rock over an eight-foot creek.

When Cal eventually hired Jeff Tedford, their second choice, athletic director Steve Gladstone said he thought Tedford could build a winning program with the current crummy facilities. Everyone laughed.

Tedford, meanwhile, made Gladstone a prophet, getting recruits more interested in Xs and Os than locker room video games and lounge chairs. However, he said the entire time that such success would only last so long in the university didn’t step up to the plate.

Miraculously, Cal did step up to the plate and started raising funds for a stadium renovation. Now that they have the money, the city isn’t happy. Seems the site isn’t safe because it’s on a fault line. I guess the best plan at this point is to move the entire city to Kansas.

Meanwhile, Cal keeps plugging along, trying to get a little attention on the East Coast, which thinks Cal universities begin at USC and end at UCLA. Oh, and there also is that Stanford place, which is well known because of John McEnroe.

With all that weighing down upon the collective Cal mind, the Golden Bears go into Saturday’s game with the chance to set the world right. There is no city council to consider, no administrative red tape. No polls, no sportswriters, no computers. The formula is simple, win and go to the Rose Bowl. Period.

So if DeSean and Marshawn and Desmond and Brandon and Daymeion, et. al, get their act together for one glorious evening, play out of their minds, then Old Blues can die happy, Cal fans can weep and Strawberry Canyon will again be a place of peace and beauty and not just the cover of some boiling pot.

Will the players carry Tedford off on their shoulders? We will find out in just over 24 hours.


bad day in the desert

If Cal fans knew at the beginning of the season, that the Bears would play USC on Nov. 18 with the Rose Bowl on the line, do you think they would have taken it?

In a heartbeat.

And that’s what they’ve got, one game that will define their season. It’s either Pasadena and the end of years of frustration or the Holiday Bowl, the Pac-10’s booby prize.

Most worrisome for this team is the fact it really has a hard time getting the offense and the defense to show up on the same day. The wins over Oregon and Oregon State were complete, but there haven’t been too many other times when both units played up to their best.

The Bears had better trot out their best on Saturday.

USC is a very physical team which figured to beat up on Oregon, just as it did. Cal is a much better match for the Trojans.

Certainly, Nate Longshore will have to be at his best. Those double clutch throws that he has gotten away with at times won’t be any good against the Trojans. He’s got to make great decisions and he has got to be accurate.

It also was alarming on Saturday that Arizona controlled the Bears’ offensive line in terms of the running. If that was because the Wildcats overmatched them with bodies up front, then the Cal coaching staff should have gone elsewhere. If the Bears simply couldn’t match Arizona’s physical play, then they could be in trouble on Saturday.

The loss at Arizona was deflating for everyone, just when it appeared the Bears would be ranked fourth or fifth in the nation going into the game. But the stakes remain the same. A win on Saturday will send Cal alums into a wild dance never seen on Figuroa.


Cat scratch fever

So Cal must survive in the desert if it expects to capture the nation’s attention next Saturday when it plays at USC. I think the Bears will be just fine, even if Arizona has gained confidence after such a convincing win against Washington State. In that game, the Wildcats jumped on the Cougars on their third offensive play of the game as Tuitama threw a long touchdown pass. In some of Cal’s big wins this season, such as Oregon, the Bears set the tone early with big plays. I think that especially is important on Saturday. Cal doesn’t want Arizona going into the fourth quarter thinking upset.

I do think ARizona is going to have a hard time scoring against Cal because it has limited offensive weapons. Chris Henry is a good back, but I see Cal being able to shut him down. Wide receiver Syndric Steptoe is a dynamite talent, but Bob Gregory can throw Daymeion Hughes on him. Unlike USC, which has tremendous depth at wide receiver, I don’t see the Cats having a lot of options if Hughes can control Steptoe.

There has been a lot of talk the last week about Cal’s defense, and the yards they’ve been allowing, and I think we might see these guys step up to the plate. This really is an opponent they can shut down.

My story in Saturday’s Contra Costa Times features Brandon Mebane, and the fact that his 2.5 sacks doesn’t put him in line to win national awards. However, keep an eye on him against the Wildcats. His penetration is the key to a lot of the things Cal is able to accomplish on defense. I could see him having a big game on Saturday, and perhaps two or three tackles for loss. I don’t know how many times Chris Henry is going to run at Mebane. We will see.


stadium news

I talked with Sandy Barbour today (Thursday) and she said that ground-breaking for the High Performance Center is scheduled for Dec. 1.

The Board of Regents will review the plans next Tuesday and Wednesday and if approved, the project will go ahead as scheduled.

It is a planned 14-month building period which should not affect next season’s play at Memorial Stadium. I believe that the outside work is mostly supposed to be completed and then the inside work can be accomplished during the football season.

I asked Barbour if there were any lawsuits filed against the project yet and she said no. However, she is aware that there might be.

However, she was very positive that the project would begin as expected.

In my notes in Friday’s Contra Costa Times, I wrote about Cal special teams whiz Byron Storer. However, in talking to coach Tedford about special teams players, he also noted that guys who don’t get a lot of attention for their special teams play are senior Randy Bundy and freshman walk-on Kyle Kirst. Bundy is kind of an uplifting story because he’s a kid who was so excited to have a chance to be a starter at cornerback at the beginning of the season and then got buried behind the tremendous talents of freshman Syd’Quan Thompson. Bundy has worked so hard, he could have withdrawn or given up. Instead, he is making an impact on special teams.

Perhaps Cal’s most valuable special teams player is long snapper Nick Sundberg. That guy is awesome. If you watch major college football from week to week, you probably haven’t seen anyone who gets the ball back as fast and accurately as Sundberg. He is so automatic that teams don’t even put a lot of effort into trying to block Cal’s punts.


We’re not perfect

Linebacker Greg Van Hoesen was talking about the 500 yards his defense gave up to UCLA and, as he said, “We’re not perfect.” However, the feeling among Cal’s defensive players is everything is building.

Free safety Bernard Hicks said he blew the coverage on one long completion against UCLA and noted that there were a couple of other coverage mixups. Defensive end Cody Jones said the linebackers and defensive linemen got caught slanting the wrong way (not in conjunction) a few times against UCLA and that opened holes.

The bottom line is that it sounds like Cal had quite a few correctable errors on Saturday. Nobody on the team is happy the errors happened, but they are working to fix them. The talent, I think everyone would agree, is there.

Marshawn Lynch and Robert Jordan showed up at the luncheon and they both looked relaxed and happy. Jordan said Lynch is the one who has to get him out of bed every day. Marshawn said that can be a difficult task. “He has all those covers pulled up over his head.” Lynch said that Virdell Larkins, who now is playing at Laney, used to wake him up every morning about 5 a.m. He said Larkins was a real early bird. He also noted that Larkins is doing great as he gets ready to go through the recruiting process all over again.
The two also talked about their classes and getting through school. They said their college writing class was their toughest as they sometimes have three projects they are working to complete at the same time. Lynch laughed as he told the story of Jordan writing a 15-page paper on his (Lynch’s) mom that he had to write on a Sidekick computer. For those of you old folks like me who think a sidekick is Tonto, a Sidekick I guess is this little, tiny computer about the size of a telephone with a keyboard on it. It appears that Jordan must have written this entire paper with his thumbs.

Coach Jeff Tedford said he was very concerned about defensive end Phillip Mbakogu’s knee, which hasn’t responded after surgery. Tedford said the injury is career threatening. Mbakogu will continue to work with the medical staff as they try to determine a solution.

He also noted that sophomore defensive end Rulon Davis have a badly bruised bone in his leg that has kept him out of action. Davis watched the UCLA game on crutches. Tedford said the injury is beginning to respond and he hopes Davis will be available soon. He said Davis was playing well in the chances that he had.

Van Hoesen talked about having the huge wood cutout of linebacker Zack Follett in his house as he was completing the painting of it to send to Zack’s mom. “It was a little creepy having it in the house for a while,” Van Hoesen said. “Late at night, I would walk into it. ‘Oh my god, who is that?’ ” Van Hoesen said he and Follett are considering other projects, including a Lynch cutout.