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August 30, 2007The painful image of Penn State defensive back Tony Davis racing up the sideline in last season's Outback Bowl has run through the mind of Arian Foster over and over again. After all, holding the agonizing brunt as the guy who fumbled away the ball late in your team's bowl game loss isn't something that just goes away overnight. But, for the Tennessee running back, who will trot onto the Memorial Stadium turf as the starting ball carrier when the Volunteers tangle with No. 12 Cal Saturday evening, getting a fresh start is just what the doctor ordered.
The scene was set for redemption. It was right there for him to end his sophomore season riding right into the sunset. The ball was in his hands. Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer put the ball in his hands.
Instead, things went the exact opposite direction of what he had hoped for.
With Tennessee and Penn State tied 10-10 early in the fourth quarter during the 2007 Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, Foster took a handoff from quarterback Erik Ainge and looked for a hole on the left side with the Vols' offense slowly but surely marching closer and closer to the endzone.
Foster, who battled injuries all year before seeing his job taken away by then-freshman LaMarcus Coker, rumbled hard into the pile with a slight hope of daylight ahead. Just as Foster hit the open field though, he was hit hard, very hard, and the pigskin plopped onto the turf.
Davis, who had already returned a fumble for a touchdown earlier that year, picked up the loose ball and starting sprinting down the left sideline. His teammates gave chase as hard as they could. But there was nothing Foster could do. He was trapped under a couple of Nittany Lions' defenders. He could only lay there and watch what unfolded.
What was once a promising drive for the Tennessee faithful turned into an highlight 88-yard touchdown fumble recovery that defined Davis' and Penn State's 2006 season and left Foster and his Vols teammates with a bitter taste in their mouths, finishing the season 9-4.
After that game, there was nothing for Foster to do but to go back to the drawing board. He had busted on to the college scene with a fury in 2005, rushing for 879 yards as a freshman and considered to be the next "great" thing in a rich and wealthy Tennessee football history.
But, a 322-yard rushing total the very next season kind of put a stop to all of that.
"Arian has really matured since then though," Fulmer said earlier this week. "He was hurt off and on all last season and we understood that. He was having a very good game against Penn State before that fumble."
"Let's just say since that moment Arian has turned what was a big negative into a big positive, using it as motivation."
During the off-season, nobody knew when, or if, Foster would get another shot. Coker had impressed the coaching staff so much that it was him, and not Foster, that was anointed as the "future". But, just weeks before the season opener, Coker was suspended by Fulmer for violating team rules.
And Foster was back in the spotlight.
"Honestly, there's no pressure on me at all (going into Saturday)," he said. "As a whole, our unit is ready. We are prepared, and we are heading into this season with a big chip on our shoulder."
If there is one thing both Cal and Tennessee coaches heading into Saturday's season opener have emphasized thoroughly is the battle at the line of scrimmage. With so many talented offensive and defensive linemen on both rosters, Foster, and Cal senior Justin Forsett will have to make the correct reads when they pick potential gaps.
Foster noted earlier this week that he is more than up to the challenge of taking on that starting role again. Foster is the last Tennessee running back to have rushed for over 200 yards, which came during his freshman campaign against Vanderbilt when he went for 223 yards. Additionally, Foster did lead the Vols' in rushing during the season opening victory over the Bears 12 months ago.
"Arian is running the ball with even more authority now, which is something that you can clearly see," Fulmer said. "Out of everybody, Arian is the most complete back that we have on the roster. He can catch out of the backfield, he can run hard, and he can pass protect."
A homecoming of sorts for Foster come Saturday, the San Diego native will start the game and receive the majority of carries. But sophomore Montario Hardesty - who rushed for 384-yards last season on 107 carries, will see action as well.
"I'm just ready to go," Foster said.
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC-Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune, and will cover Cal football in the fall of 2007.