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September 18, 2012

Strong Suit: Light 'Em Up



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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After the final whistle, under the stands at Ohio Stadium, in the visitor's locker room, California linebacker Chris McCain was sobbing, head in hands. There was anger. There was frustration. Head coach Jeff Tedford spoke honestly and from the heart about respect, about pride. Inside that locker room -- where tight end Spencer Hagan's knee sat all but obliterated, and raw nerves were the order of the day -- there was truth.

A fast start on offense. Halftime adjustments. Adjustments to the adjustments. Only four penalties -- three on one drive. Effective use of playmakers. Owning the clock. Moving the chains. Staying up for third down defense. Serving youth. A game plan which took advantage of the talents of available personnel. It was familiar but strange, comforting yet somehow unsettling, like some half-remembered dream.

"The stat sheet says that you did a lot of good things," says Tedford. "But, that doesn't count. The scoreboard is the only thing that counts, but I'm fired up about who we were [Saturday], and the heart and the determination and perseverance in a tough game like that."

Put all of those together, and you have something that the Bears have not done in quite some time. Cal (1-2) lost to Ohio State, 35-28, on Saturday, and Vince D'Amato missed three field goals -- the last of which came on a controversial call from Tedford to trot out his 0-for-2 kicker instead of continuing to pound the ball -- a decision he said he'd make again, despite the fact that his offense did wind up gaining 512 yards on the day.

Despite the final score -- or perhaps because of the thisclose-ness of it -- there was something different about that locker room on Saturday in Columbus. Something -- at least in that moment of complete and imperforate self-reflection -- that had been missing-in-action, arguably for years, from this program: Hunger -- a piercing, agonizing, perfect esurience for something more.

"We don't get participation trophies anymore," says redshirt sophomore linebacker Nick Forbes, who got his first career start alongside redshirt freshman Jalen Jefferson. "That wasn't enough."

It is far too early to tell what kind of team the Buckeyes really are in Urban Meyer's first season at the helm, with no bowl to hope for. After the game, Meyer looked beaten. He looked exhausted. He looked relieved. When was the last time a Cal team did that to an opposing coach?

When was the last time this program showed imagination, or a sense of occasion? When was the last time Tedford truly let his emotions carry him away on the sidelines?

It's been a while. Perhaps the 10-9 loss at Arizona in 2010? The Big Game-saving pick by Mike Mohamed in the 2009 Big Game? The 2007 win over Oregon on the road, or the home win over Tennessee?

Unless we see that team again this Saturday, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, none of the above will matter.

If a seriously cheesed-off USC team -- coming off of a fourth-straight loss to Stanford -- does what it's done to the Bears for the vast majority of the past seven contests, all Saturday will have been is a tease -- a horrible, cruel work, to use pro wrestling parlance. Even worse? If Cal does what it's done to itself when staring across the field and seeing the cardinal and gold these past seven meetings, then this trip down to Southern California will be spirit-breaking for the Bears faithful.

For the first time in recent memory, Cal did not look defeated before it stepped on the field, last Saturday. Two years ago -- before the 48-14 disembowelment at the Coliseum -- the Bears looked timid. They looked beaten before the Spirit of Troy played that fight song for the first of 40-plus renditions (I know; I counted).

If last week's game is to be an indication of any iota of real, tangible progress, Cal needs to do one thing: Win.

No, not a 'moral victory.' No 'close loss,' or 'winning the second half.' I'm talking about having more points than the other guy.

For the Bears to show real progress, they need to take a close game by the throat and win it -- not because someone else choked, but because they earned it, because they were clutch at the end, when it counts.

"You prepare, you work hard and you go lay it all on the line. I thought last week, we prepared, we worked hard and we laid it all on the line," Tedford says. "We just came up a little short."

The Bears have to continue to play disciplined. They have to run the ball. They have to keep using Brendan Bigelow. The fact that he sat out the final drive -- the one which ended on that missed field goal -- needs to be remedied. If Oregon has shown college football anything, it's that speed can't be defended.

"Absolutely. I think when you have those backs like that, there's only one ball on the field, but I think he proved that he's a big-play guy, he's got big-play potential," Tedford says. "He played really well the other day, so it would be nice to get him a few more touches."

Utilizing the tight ends may be a bit much to ask at this point, what with Richard Rodgers still struggling mightily to cut on his injured foot and Hagan possibly done for the year, pending the results of his MRI early this week. The only viable option there now is Jacob Wark, and while a fine traditional tight end, he is not as dynamic as former receivers Rodgers and Hagan. First-year players Harrison Wilfley and Maximo Espitia, Jr., have not seen real game speed. Espitia looked like a deer in the headlights as he took the field in the fourth quarter last week.

No, this team can't lament the plans that have fallen apart. No use crying over spilt tight ends. What Cal needs to do is keep running the ball. Last week, against a defensive line that sacked quarterback Zach Maynard six times, the Bears tore off 224 rushing yards. How many yards a game does USC allow? 130.3 -- and that's against the likes of 1-2 Syracuse (133 yards) and pass-happy Hawaii (56 yards), to go along with the Cardinal. None of those teams have a returning 1,300-yard rusher like Isi Sofele, or a weapon like Bigelow. Running is what powered Cal down the stretch last season, and it's been the beating heart of previous Bears teams, which found success against the Trojans in years past.

Even Tedford paused, hemmed and hawed when saying that his offensive line performed "above average," and indeed the line as a whole been a collective C-student so far after facing no live bullets in the fall. They've had their warm-up. Now it's time to see if they can actually play, and that goes for the rest of the program -- coaches, players, hell, even equipment managers.

"It's a long football season," says Tedford. "We're just now starting conference play, and it happens to be versus a highly-ranked team on the road. I expect a really good week of preparation. We talked about that as a team -- making sure we're consistent with our preparation and our work ethic. We're going to play a great football team. It's one more opportunity to go on the road and do the same thing."

Except this time, Cal can't, as Forbes says, come "close, but no ciggy's." It cannot be more of the same. Neither the program nor its head coach can afford it. For Tedford and the Bears to show that they have indeed turned a corner, there can be no more excuses. No more silver linings. Cal needs to light 'em up.


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