Bears back from bye with focus on second half

Updated: October 14, 2003, 11:38 PM ET

BERKELEY, Calif. -- After an early-season schedule designed to immerse his young team in difficult situations, California coach Jeff Tedford knew the Golden Bears needed an easy week.

Cal (3-4, 1-1 Pac-10) returned Tuesday from its only bye week in a 13-game schedule. There are just six games left in what's been an up-and-down season so far.

With just three wins in their first seven games, the Bears are behind the pace they set last fall in their tremendous resurgent season, but Tedford believes his current team has been tested and toughened in ways the previous squad never experienced -- and he's hoping that toughness leads to a second-half surge.

"I think it was good for our young players to get that experience, but the first seven games were tough," Tedford said. 'I think it matured the team. We'll see if that's the case.

"It feels like a new season right now. It gave the players some time to get away -- more than just get physically refreshed, get mentally refreshed."

With three road games in their next four outings, the Bears are happy to see that the Pac-10 race still is wide open after their bye. Eight teams have at least one conference victory, and only three haven't lost.

UCLA, the Golden Bears' opponent on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, is one of the unbeatens -- but Cal has beaten the Bruins in eight of the last 13 meetings. With a tough defense and an improving offense that excels when coming from behind, rebuilding UCLA will be another challenge.

The Golden Bears have been brilliant at times this season -- particularly in their 34-31 triple-overtime victory over then-No. 3 Southern California two weeks ago. They also have struggled in losses to Mountain West Conference schools Utah and Colorado State -- and they were soundly beaten at home by Oregon State in the game before their bye.

So which team will show up for the second half of the schedule? Judging by the first workouts of the week, Tedford believes the Bears are close to achieving a new level of maturity -- and not just because they're the least-penalized team in the conference.

"I was looking for us to be a bit rusty (Tuesday), but I was pleased with how sharp we were," Tedford said. "It's good to see some guys coming back from injuries. It gave some of our guys a chance to heal some of the things they might not have been able to play with."

Among those returning from injuries was sophomore defensive standout Donnie McCleskey, who's fourth in the conference in tackles (8.7 per game), sacks (5{) and tackles for loss (10).

Cal's defense has been pounded by most opponents this season, ranking ninth in the conference by allowing 423 yards per game. But McCleskey is among several players who are gaining attention for solid individual efforts.

"It's just a matter of getting everybody together and getting behind the game plan," said McCleskey, who plays rover in defensive coordinator Bob Gregory's scheme. "We've had a lot of occasions this year where we missed one assignment or missed one tackle, and it ended up costing us points. We're really close to closing that gap and taking it to the next level."

Cal's offense has been solid and explosive in the first seven weeks despite its lack of an established starting quarterback. Aaron Rodgers still holds the job he won from Reggie Robertson earlier in the season, but Tedford expects to play both for the remainder of the season.

So far, it's working: Cal is near the top of the conference in most passing statistics.

The running game has been solid as well, with Adimchinobe Echemandu impressing opponents and teammates with a breakout season as a senior. Injuries and academic mishaps slowed him earlier in his career, but Echemandu is second in the Pac-10 with 91.1 yards rushing per game.

Echemandu wants more positive memories from his senior season, including Cal's first bowl bid since 1996. With four wins in their final six games, the Bears would be in position for a bowl.

"My goals now are all about having a winning season, winning the Pac-10 and making a bowl game," Echemandu said. "That's why we're out here for the last two months. It's going to be a challenge, but it'll be fun."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index