Stingy defense, running game spark Cal's success

Cal's recipe for success this season can be attributed to a stingy defense and a premier rushing attack.

Updated: October 6, 2005, 11:41 AM ET
By Ted Miller | Special to ESPN.com

This team is fifth nationally in scoring defense and seventh in rushing offense. This 5-0, 10th-ranked squad has gone 10 quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown and has gained more yards on the ground than through the air in all five of its wins.

We don't think we're prey at all. We're still predators. We're still hunting.
Cal safety Donnie McCleskey

Sounds like one of those meat 'n' potatoes, red-state powers from the Big Ten or Big 12, where flamboyance and the forward pass are still, at least in some outposts, considered downright unAmerican.

Not this time. The headquarters of smashmouth football so far this year is just outside of San Francisco in the liberal town of Berkeley, Calif., where folks alternate anti-war chants with shouts of "Go Bears!"

As California defensive coordinator Bob Gregory might exclaim -- and often does when possessed by his irrepressible, bawdy bravado -- "Jiminy Christmas!"

Just one school ranks in the nation's top 10 in rushing offense and scoring defense, arguably the best measures of pure power in college football: Cal. Just two schools rank among the top 12 in scoring offense and scoring defense: Cal and Texas Tech.

Here's something else those two schools have in common (other than a 2004 Holiday Bowl meeting that the Bears would prefer to forget): We really don't know how good they are yet.

While Cal's early-season schedule hasn't been a national scandal like Texas Tech's inexcusably spineless slate, the Bears' opponents, it must be noted, are a combined 5-19. So the program's first 5-0 start since 1996 isn't something to march and chant about just yet.

That could change this weekend, when Cal heads to the Rose Bowl to take on unbeaten, 20th-ranked UCLA. That game combines with No. 25 Oregon's visit to No. 17 Arizona State to help clear up the four-team gaggle battling for the runner-up position behind top-ranked USC.

There's a general hope out west that the No. 2 spot could mean a second BCS bowl berth for the conference, likely the Fiesta Bowl because the Rose Bowl is this year's national championship game.

For Cal, that would make up for last year's snub, in which Texas nipped the Bears in the BCS standings due to dubious voting changes in the major polls.

During the preseason, though, many thought the Bears would be due for some rebuilding, not BCS bowling. They welcomed back the fewest starters in the Pac-10 (11) including just three on defense.

What the strong start does demonstrate is that the Bears don't appear to be a one-hit wonder, like, say, Tulane in 1998, though strong safety Donnie McCleskey wouldn't play along with the cliched notion of the team transforming from hunters to the hunted.

"We don't think we're prey at all," McCleskey said. "We're still predators. We're still hunting."

That may be true, but the weapons of choice are perhaps a bit surprising.

Coach Jeff Tedford is popularly known as a quarterbacks guru, having tutored Trent Dilfer and David Carr at Fresno State, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington at Oregon and Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers at Cal.

Despite that high-flying reputation, Cal has produced a 1,000-yard rusher during each of Tedford's previous three seasons, including J.J. Arrington's 2,018-yard romp last year.

This year figures to be no different, though the Bears may end up with two backs eclipsing that benchmark behind a road-grading offensive line, though it remains to be seen how much the loss of left tackle Andrew Cameron to a knee injury will hurt.

Justin Forsett stepped in when fellow super-sophomore Marshawn Lynch was sidelined for two games with a broken pinkie finger and has rushed for 585 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Both Lynch, who returned to action last week against Arizona, and Forsett average over 100 yards rushing per game, and four different Bears backs have produced 17 consecutive games with at least one 100-yard rusher.

"It's whatever you need to do to try to be successful," said Tedford of the Bears' 259 yards rushing per game. "We've had a lot of success running the ball and until somebody stops it we're going to keep running it."

On the other side of the ball, Gregory has quietly built one of the best defenses in the nation, one that has held opponents to a touchdown or less six times over the past two years, including three shutouts.

In 2001, pre-Tedford/Gregory, Cal surrendered 39 points per game. Last year, it ranked eighth in the country, giving up only 16 points.

There hasn't been much drop-off this year. Junior defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and junior linebacker Desmond Bishop, a JC transfer, look like first-team all-conference performers, while linebackers Anthony Felder and Zach Follett certainly don't look like true freshmen. Cornerback Daymeion Hughes leads the conference with four interceptions.

This crew, with only three seniors on the entire two-deep depth chart, ranks in the top three in every Pac-10 defensive category, and is No. 1 in scoring and total defense.

"Now you're going to jinx us," fretted Gregory, whose karma is such that he figures to have his name start bouncing around this winter when head coaching jobs become available.

Gregory doesn't seem too eager for publicity. It's not surprising -- or inaccurate -- that he is quick to note that none of the previous five opponents own anything approaching the offensive firepower of UCLA.

"All you have to do is turn on the film," he said. "This is a different team than what we've been seeing."

That can be said for most of the remaining schedule, which includes back-to-back games with Oregon and USC the first two weekends of November. Cal does, however, escape a showdown with Arizona State.

It's reasonable to assume that Cal's passing offense will steadily develop as junior quarterback Joe Ayoob and a young but extremely talented group of receivers mature.

Still, Cal's staple this year will be the running game and a stout defense. A finesse team in a finesse conference? The Bears roll their eyes at the stereotype.

"That doesn't bother me," 6-foot-7, 346-pound offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan said. "It doesn't seem like we've been nice to them when we've played East Coast teams."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Ted Miller | email

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