- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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BERKELEY, Calif. -- It has followed California coach Jeff Tedford around as much as his shadow. Everywhere the offensive guru has gone since the Bears' season opener at Tennessee, everyone wants to know what happened.
"Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong," Tedford tells them.
Just like that, in 60 minutes in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 2, the Golden Bears turned into the tarnished Bears. California's offense was supposed to be loaded. Tailback Marshawn Lynch was being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Quarterback Nate Longshore had returned from an ankle injury that caused him to miss nearly all of the 2005 season. He was going to shore up a passing attack that was the worst in the Pac-10 last year.
With another strong-armed quarterback under center, and a receiving corps that had more speed than a 4x100 relay team, California's offense was going to light up the skies again.
But California never had a chance against Tennessee. The Bears got knocked in the mouth on the game's first play and never responded in a 35-18 loss. Longshore ran for his life much of the night, Lynch ran nowhere, and California's defense ran after the back of Volunteers' jerseys.
On that night, at least, the Golden Bears looked like teddy bears. They looked soft.
"I just don't get it," Tedford said. "I've never seen such a hangover from the media for one loss. That was six weeks ago, and that's all they want to talk about. We've played pretty good since then. We knew that wasn't even close to the way we play.
"I've said it 1,000 times: Anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. That wasn't us out there."
The wait for redemption was well worth it for California. Back in the national spotlight against No. 11 Oregon in a key Pac-10 game on Saturday night, the No. 16 Bears forced three first-half turnovers and pulled away for an easy 45-24 victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 72,516 at Memorial Stadium.
It was Oregon's first loss of the season, and left the Bears and No. 3 Southern California as the only teams left with unblemished records in Pac-10 play.
After spending more than a month defending his team and telling others not to forget about the Bears, Tedford now faces a new dilemma. After California beat Oregon for only the second time in the last nine meetings, Tedford must now discourage others from looking ahead to California's Nov. 18 game at USC.
"Our team won't think about it," Tedford said. "We'll make sure we stay focused on one week at a time. That's a long way away. There are a lot of great teams in this league. You've got to bring your A game every week in this league."
Before playing the Trojans at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, Cal will play three consecutive games against teams with winning records -- at Washington State and at home against Washington and UCLA -- before playing at rebuilding Arizona on Nov. 11.
If No. 3 USC is indeed vulnerable -- and with the Trojans' performances the last three weeks, it might not be a question of if they'll lose, but when they'll fall -- then Saturday night's West Coast shootout was supposed to decide which Pac-10 team is ready to challenge the four-time defending conference champions.
That team was supposed to be Oregon, which came into Memorial Stadium with a 4-0 record, albeit with the tarnished 34-33 victory over Oklahoma hanging noticeably on its résumé. The Ducks had previously scored 48 points against Stanford, 31 at Fresno State and 48 at Arizona State. There also was the offensive explosion against the Sooners, which came with aid from officials on the now infamous onside kick in the final minutes.
The Bears were the team that everyone away from the Left Coast seemingly forgot. But they had won four consecutive games since losing to Tennessee, scoring 40 points or more in victories over Minnesota, Division I-AA Portland State, Arizona State and Oregon State.
Still, that winning streak wasn't enough to erase the deflating loss at Tennessee.
"We could have folded," defensive end Abu Ma'Afala said.
But by the time the sun had set Saturday night on the picturesque hills that hover over this classic college football setting, it was clear Cal has something the Ducks -- and possibly every other Pac-10 team besides USC -- still lacks.
And the Bears sure have enough offense to go with it.
California shut down Oregon tailback Jonathan Stewart, who finished with only 25 yards on 18 carries. Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns, but he had only 66 yards at halftime and seemed confused by the Bears' coverages throughout the game.
"Defensively, that's a feat to stop those guys and slow them down like our defense did," Tedford said. "Our defense is nails. It was evident today."
But California's offense is still the hammer. The Bears scored 40 points for the fifth game in a row and had 424 yards offense -- 235 on the ground and 189 passing. They did much of their damage without Lynch, who left early in the second quarter with a sprained ankle. Tedford said X-rays didn't show significant damage.
California didn't need Lynch on this night. Bears safety Brandon Hampton intercepted Dixon's pass on the first play from scrimmage, giving California possession at the Oregon 7. Four plays later, Longshore threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Craig Stevens for a 7-0 lead.
"When you get the ball at the 7-yard line, that's money in the bank," Longshore said.
Longshore completed 14 of 26 passes for 189 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. After throwing for only 85 yards and no touchdowns against Tennessee, the sophomore has tossed 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in the last five games.
Longshore, who leads the Pac-10 in pass efficiency, gives much of the credit to his offensive line. He has been sacked only four times in the last five games. Having swift receivers and running backs also helps.
"Aren't they the fastest guys you've ever seen?" Longshore said. "I've just been guiding it. We've got guys out there doing the work. I get to sit back and pretend like I'm in charge. We've got so many big playmakers. I've got the easiest job out there."
One of those playmakers is wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a sophomore from Long Beach, Calif., and one of the fastest players in college football. He ran by Ducks cornerback Walter Thurmond and caught a 36-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Later in the first half, after the Bears went ahead 21-3 on Longshore's 1-yard touchdown run on a sneak, the Ducks punted from their 17. Jackson caught the football at his team's 35-yard line around the middle of the field and ran to the left hash mark. With nowhere to go, he cut back his right, picked up a wall of blockers and sprinted for a 65-yard touchdown.
Jackson has a touchdown catch in each of the last eight games -- the longest streak in Division I-A -- and has scored 18 touchdowns in 17 college games.
"It was national attention and a lot was on the line," Jackson said. "I think we showed up and showed everybody what our team is about. It just gives us a chance to get back to where we were at the beginning of the season."
And it's an opportunity for the Bears to forget where they've already been.
"Now, hopefully, I won't get asked about Tennessee every week," Tedford said. "No, that's never going to go away. They'll keep asking me about that."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After weeks of hanging under a Tennessee cloud, Cal returned to the national spotlight against Oregon. The wait for redemption was worth it, writes Mark Schlabach.