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September 2, 2007

Cal avenges loss, beats Tennessee

BERKELEY, Calif. -- California scored one for the West Coast with a redemptive win over Tennessee. DeSean Jackson scampered 77 yards for his sixth career punt return for a touchdown, and the 12th-ranked Golden Bears avenged last season's humiliating loss to the No. 15 Volunteers with a 45-31 victory Saturday night.

Justin Forsett rushed for 156 yards and a score, and Nate Longshore passed for 241 yards and two TDs as the Bears (1-0) racked up the most points scored against the Volunteers in 12 years to win the opening weekend's only matchup between ranked schools.

Though both teams struggled on defense, Cal's offensive creativity and athleticism were too much for its SEC foes. The win also should quiet some of those Pac-10 detractors who cited Cal's 35-18 blowout loss in Knoxville last year as a prime example of the conference's shortcomings outside top-ranked Southern California.

As the clock wound down in the final minutes, the sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium jubilantly chanted "Pac-10 football!" at the departing Tennessee fans.

Erik Ainge had 271 yards passing and three TD throws despite an injured finger, but Tennessee's first trip to the West Coast since 1997 was hardly encouraging for coach Phillip Fulmer's defense, which hadn't given up this many points since a 62-37 loss to Florida in 1995.

Since then, the Vols even played a six-overtime game and another five-OT game without giving up 45 points.

Arian Foster rushed for 89 yards and Chris Brown caught two TD passes from Ainge, who wore a white wrap on two fingers of his throwing hand after injuring his pinkie during practice this week. The senior was exceptionally sharp while completing 14 of his first 15 throws, but Tennessee's no-huddle offense finally bogged down in the fourth quarter.

The Volunteers also had a scare with 4:10 to play when starting defensive end Xavier Mitchell left the field on a stretcher with his neck immobilized after a hard tackle. Tennessee had no immediate word on the nature of the senior's injury.

The Bears spent the past year chafing at the memory of their season-opening loss, mentioning it constantly in team meetings and repeatedly watching tape of their follies. Tennessee jumped to a 35-0 lead in the third quarter in Knoxville, dealing a humiliating blow to the Bears' quest for national respect.

The 72,516 fans at Memorial Stadium did their best to provide a homefield advantage resembling Neyland Stadium's edge, packing Strawberry Canyon well before kickoff and easily outshouting the 10,000-plus Tennessee fans on the south end.

Coach Jeff Tedford's club scored early and often against Tennessee. Cal linebacker Worrell Williams returned a fumble 44 yards for a score just 1:51 into the game, while Jackson -- the junior receiver with almost unearthly returning skills -- broke free early in the second quarter with a dizzying series of moves on the way to the end zone.

Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins had TD catches from Longshore, with Hawkins catching seven passes for 90 yards.

Cal led 38-21 early in the third quarter, but the Volunteers pulled within seven points on Daniel Lincoln's field goal in the opening minute of the fourth. Forsett's TD run with 9:10 to play pushed Cal back to a comfortable lead, and the defense finished off the Bears' eighth straight home victory since 2005.

So just what was LSU head coach Les Miles saying?

"We definitely answered a lot of questions about the toughness of the Pac-10, but more importantly the toughness of this ballclub," said Williams afterwards.

The Golden Bears earned the victory, but every school in the oft-maligned Pac-10 got a lift from this one. You hope Miles had a chance to catch it, too, after drubbing Southeastern Conference powerhouse Mississippi State 45-0 on Thursday night.

Miles had stirred up passions on the typically laid-back West Coast when he said Southern California would have a "much easier road to travel" to the BCS title game because it plays in the soft-serve Pac-10. Miles didn't use the term "soft-serve," but he might as well have.

"They're going to play real knock-down, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford - some real juggernauts," Miles said of the Trojans.

Coach Tedford shrugged when asked about Miles' remarks.

"I don't need to respond to his comments," Tedford said.

His players did it for him. That Cal-Berkeley juggernaut left tire tracks all over the Vols' white road uniforms.

A couple of hours before the game, a plane towing a banner reading "SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS" buzzed over Memorial Stadium.

That was a bit like poking a sleeping Bear. But Cal had plenty of motivation already after being routed by the Volunteers 35-18 in Knoxville in last season's opener -- a result that dogged Cal for the rest of a fine season.

Tennessee was by far the tougher team in a 35-18 romp over Cal in Knoxville last season. The Golden Bears had promised to match them blow-for-blow in the rematch, and linebacker Zack Follett set the tone when he nailed Ainge in the back in the first quarter, forcing a fumble that Williams picked up and returned 44 yards for the game's first touchdown.

The Bears also flexed their muscles in a third-quarter goal-line stand, when defensive back Bernard Hicks stopped Vols receiver Lucas Taylor on an option play at the California 1.

So much for the idea that the SEC has cornered the market on toughness.

"We came out and hit them as hard as we could, and they folded," Follett said. "In the third quarter, their 'O' line was taking a knee, so I don't ever want to hear that again."

But football is about more than hitting the other guy in the mouth. It helps to be able to run too.

As Tennessee found out on DeSean Jackson's 77-yard punt return for a touchdown, there is speed, and then there is Pac-10 speed.

It was telling that some of Tennessee's biggest plays came from Ainge and Foster, both of whom went to high school in Pac-10 territory. Ainge, a cool senior from Hillsboro, Ore., completed his first 10 passes.

Either way this one went, it was the sort of intersectional showdown college football needs, especially on the season's first weekend, when there's no NFL and the colleges have the spotlight to themselves.

Some hoped the Bowl Championship Series, by emphasizing schedule strength, would create more of these high-stakes matchups. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Many of the big dogs would rather buy victories in September as hedges against spending the holidays at home. So the season opened with a glut of Rutgers-Buffalo, Louisville-Murray State and Penn State-Florida International.

Appalachian State's stunning victory over fifth-ranked Michigan broke the mold, but the big upset in the Big House on Saturday was the exception that proves the rule in these early season routs.

That's why Tennessee-Cal was such a big deal. It was the only game pitting Top 25 teams on Saturday.

"Tennessee playing Cal is good for college football," Florida coach Urban Meyer said on last week's SEC coaches teleconference call. "You owe it to college football to play at least one Top 10-caliber team outside your conference, and most teams don't do that."

It's hard to say what the powerhouses are afraid of, other than losing. And a loss before Labor Day isn't likely to end anyone's national title hopes, except possibly Michigan's. Florida rebounded from a midseason defeat to win it all last year.

One thing is certain: fans love these games. Strawberry Canyon was buzzing an hour before the Bears and Vols kicked off on a dazzling, 80-degree afternoon.

Tennessee sold its allotment of 7,500 tickets, but there were at least 10,000 orange-clad Vols fans in the Memorial Stadium sellout crowd of 72,516, some of them bobbing like lonely buoys in a blue-and-gold sea.

Tennessee seemed to bring everyone but Smokey, its bluetick coonhound mascot. Why did they leave the dawg in Knoxville?

"Too far," one Tennessee official said.

Smokey didn't miss much as Tennessee fell to 2-7-1 all-time in California.

"This might hurt us nationally, but what we want is the SEC championship, so we're still in the hunt for that," Ainge said.

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