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September 2, 2007
BERKELEY, Calif. - They got revenge. They got redemption. And they got a return.
The California Golden Bears and all their fans among the crowd of 76,000 - not including the nude environmental protesters living in trees outside Memorial Stadium - also got the last laugh in Saturday night's 45-31 college football victory over Tennessee.
Last year Cal was branded soft and overrated after a 35-18 season-opening ambush in Knoxville, which wasn't nearly that close. Then, before kickoff on Saturday night a propeller-powered plane circled high above the stadium towing a banner that read: SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS.
Apparently, that perceived drooling was actually the 12th-ranked Bears' mouths watering for a chance to prove they were more talented, more competitive and more masculine than they showed a year ago.
Insinuations that the Bears were soft worked as motivational fuel throughout the offseason, and the Bears came into the game with chips on their shoulders.
"(Tennessee safety Jonathan) Hefney was saying we were soft and that he'd never seen a team fold like we did (last year)," said Cal linebacker Zack Follett, who produced the game's first touchdown with a crunching sack of Erik Ainge, which forced a fumble that Worrell Williams returned 45 yards for the score. "That wasn't smart. I felt like they folded. In the third quarter they were taking a knee, so I never want to hear (that Cal is soft) again."
California coach Jeff Tedford seemed to echo that sentiment.
"They're a physical football team, and I felt like we stood with them toe-to-toe," he said. "In the fourth quarter we felt our guys wore them down and played more physical. I've heard comments that they are a more physical team than us and a more physical conference than us. I hope that answers some questions."
No doubt, it did.
Last season the Bears rushed for just 64 yards and allowed quarterback Nate Longshore to be sacked three times.
This time, Cal rushed for 247 yards (156 from Justin Forsett) and Longshore remained upright in the pocket. He completed 19 of 28 attempts for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
"I have to do whatever I can to get to the wall," Jackson said. "When I looked up there was a lot of guys in white shirts in my way. But I made a couple of good moves."
Although Jackson's return was clearly Cal's most dazzling play, it was by no means the only big one. Cal posted 14 plays that covered 15 yards or more, including Williams' fumble return.
The electrifying Bears were just too much for the mainly efficient Volunteers, who moved the ball with a solid running game and primarily short passes.
Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge showed few signs of being bothered by a broken little finger on his passing hand. Nor did he seem drastically hampered by the loss of his top three receivers from last season. Ainge completed his first 10 passes Saturday and eventually finished with 32 completions for 271 yards (an 8.5 yard average per completion) and three touchdowns.
When the Bears threatened to pull away, Ainge almost always brought the Vols back in the game.
The Vols answered Cal's first three touchdowns. Ainge, who threw incomplete just twice in the first half, tossed touchdown passes of 12 yards to Arian Foster and 2 yards to Chris Brown. Montario Hardesty scored on a 1-yard run.
But too often in the second half the Volunteers stalled. Midway through the third quarter they were turned away on four downs from the 2-yard line. Later, they had to settle for a field goal that closed the gap to 38-31.
"There were so many third-and-twos," Ainge said. "Down near the end zone, when we had third-and-two and then couldn't score in the red zone ... it was tough. When you don't convert plays like that you can't win."
That's especially the case when the opponent is so difficult to contain.
"We did not tackle well," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "There were a number of occasions when we just looked bad trying to tackle those guys. Their front did a good job moving us more than we would have liked, so you have to give them credit." The point proven, the Cal fans began chanting "Pac-10 football, Pac-10 football" when the outcome was secure. The message was clear: Those West Coast teams apparently aren't so soft after all.
It was a victory many thought Cal desperately needed to enhance its national reputation.
"I don't know if we needed it, but it's something nice to have," Tedford said. "It's important that we played more up to our potential. We didn't do that last year. We've been looking ahead to this for a long time."
Olin Buchanan is a senior national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.