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Pigskin Euphoria at UC Berkeley

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These are the days in Strawberry Canyon. UC Berkeley is a happy place these days euphoric over rare success of it's football program. Just five years ago UC Berkeley was nothing more than the Yugo of college football. Then they brought in a solid head coach with all the right credentials and everything changed. In just five years Coach Jeff Tedford has methodically built up a powerhouse program in Berkeley, which is now poised to become a relevant force (if it isn't already) in the world of college football with or without him (when he jumps to the NFL). However to be considered a bona fide powerhouse in college football Cal needs to go to a bowl game held on or after January 1st. And there is the rub. Despite all his success Tedord still hasn't taken the Bears to a Rose Bowl or won a marquee game after January 1. This could be the year though. And the Bear fans are euphoric.

To get a sense of that Tedford euphoria around Tightwad Hill this week we did a Q&A exchange with two scrappy blogs bleeding Berkeley Blue and Gold: Tightwad Hill and Tedford is God. These fellas were kind enough to answer few our questions about a football program based out of UC campus, which finds itself in position to end Southern California?s run at the top of Pac-10. Here are their answers:

BN: Who is Cal's offensive MVP this season? Nate Longshore, Marshawn Lynch or DeSean Jackson and why?

TiG: It depends on whether your "V" in "MVP' stands for "Vanilla, "Vociferous" or "Vehicular."

Longshore has improved a lot since the Tennessee game (obviously), but he still hasn't ever had to put the team on his back. He throws a near-perfect deep-ball, but otherwise it's hard to say there is anything breathtaking about his all-around game. Some, including my co-writer at TedfordIsGod.com, think he is bound to be another Tedford first-rounder in the NFL draft in a couple of years, but I just don't see it.

The scary part for the rest of the conference, though, is that Nate could potentially play three seasons for the Bears after this one.

Jackson, meanwhile, is electrifying but is more like a great soccer striker ? he goes silent for stretches and then suddenly he is putting points on the board. Hard to say he is reliable or an MVP.

I think after the Cal-Washington game the only choice is Lynch. He is the work horse that counters Jackson's showiness (yes, the guy who wears a gold grille and drives an injury cart recklessly/hilariously around the field is the less showy player ? gotta say, it's a fun team overall). The Bears were behind in the second half against U-Dub, and Marshawn put the team on his back. By overtime it was pretty clear they planned on handing the ball to him until he scored. I think after last year's game in L.A. few Bruins fans would disagree Lynch is the MVP.

TH: Marshawn, dawg.  He hasn't been healthy since the Tennessee game, but he still leads the conference in rushing (907 yards, 6.9 per carry) and has scored 11 times, more than any Golden Bear. More important, he put the team on his back against Udub and won that game by himself. The first possession of the second half should be the first part of his Heisman reel - he took a completely busted halfback option and somehow negotiated seven Husky tacklers for a twenty-yard gain, setting up an easy score that got our offense rolling.

Longshore and Jackson have been terrific as well, but they don't quite measure up to Lynch.  Longshore has been a pleasant surprise, but he goes into stretches where he hurries the ball and loses his form against pressure.  Still, I'll take him over every other conference QB - he makes really good decisions and throws a nice deep ball.  DeSean is maybe the most explosive player to ever wear Blue and Gold, and is a threat to score on every possession (10 touchdowns to date).  He's disappeared a bit in the last two games, though, and Tedford needs to find ways to get him touches (reverses, etc) when he's doubled up.  This would be a good week to see him - and the entire offense - return to form.  I think we may need it, given the improvements you've made in run defense.

BN: The Bear DBs have given up huge chunk of yardage this season (ranked 10th in the conference in pass defense). What's the back story here? Before the Tennessee game we remember reading a lot about the inexperience in Cal's secondary (especially with the injury to Mixon). Has the secondary improved since the start of this season?

TiG: This stat surprised me until I realized how misleading it is. The Bears hadn't played a game that was remotely close until they faced the Huskies two weeks back. They have scored 42 in the first half twice, 35 once and led Oregon State 31-3 on the road.

This didn't give their opponents very many chances to try and establish the run.

That still leaves the Tennessee game. I feel Cal's defense is much improved since then. Daymeion Hughes is the best corner in the country ? no one will be able to convince me otherwise. Not only does he have seven picks and two TDs, he rarely takes gambles. He just seems to have that natural ability to know where the ball is going.

Of course, the losses of Mixon and Thomas DeCoud have been huge. Freshman Syd'Quan Thompson became become a known weakness after the Tennessee game, but the amazing part is that no one has been able to exploit him since. The guy is talented, extremely athletic and seems to be able to knock the crap out of anyone not wearing orange. He has nothing to fear after being burned so badly, on such a big stage, in Knoxville. Can you name another freshman corner that is a household name? He has four years to redeem himself, and he is already way ahead of schedule.

TH: In large part, it's the tale of two corners - on the one side is Daymeion Hughes, your 2006 Thorpe Award winner.  On the other is Syd'Quan Thompson, redshirt freshman.  SQT was the guy who got torched most often by Tennessee in Week 1.  He's improved quite a bit since then - especially in run support.  Cal has tried to protect him by running a bit more zone than usual.  That accounts for the big yardage figures, but it also helps explain why the Bears have 18 interceptions, most in the conference - we're pretty good at disguising coverages and athletic enough to close on poor throws. DC Bob Gregory is very much a student of the 'bend but don't break' school. Cal will rotate lots of players in the back seven, so depth is not a huge issue.  What you don't see in the stats is the strength of our LBs in pass coverage.  Desmond Bishop and mates essentially shut down the opposing team's screen package because of their quickness and tackling ability.

BN: By all accounts Coach Jeff Tedford has done an incredible job in making California Bears relevant in the world of college football. We are well aware of his 40-18 record and all that jazz goes along with it. However now that Cal is an established program is he under pressure to come up with his first New Year's Day bowl win?

TiG: Well, in the Pac-10, New Year's Day bowl wins are few and far between ? blame Tom Hansen and the conference's ridiculous bowl tie-ins (who is ready for USC-Missouri in the Holiday Bowl?).

I largely think Cal fans are still in mild euphoria about what has happened in Berkeley in the last five years. After the Bears got probation in 2000 (a little acknowledged aspect of just how good Tedford has been), it seemed a lot of fans were ready to disband the program. Now, a new stadium is on the way, and most of the fans finally have the BCS figured out (it took us and our misshapen egg-heads only three seasons ? much better than average). I would argue no coach has less pressure on him than Tedford, at least in the Pac-10 (except maybe Dirk Koetter, but that is kinda the opposite effect).

TH: Pressure is a relative term at Berkeley - I mean, this isn't Westwood.  If you ask me, JT's unfinished business goes in this order:  1) win a game in Los Angeles (he's 0-4); 2) win a truly big game - SC in 2003 doesn't count but SC in 2006 would; 3) win the conference championship.  Then we can worry about winning on New Year's Day.  After he accomplishes all that, they will build statues to him in Berkeley and he will not be allowed to leave the city unless supervised by Bob Birgeneau, Sandy Barbour and the Berkeley PD.

BN: Will this season be a disappointment if Cal fails to make the Rose Bowl and win that game for the first time in almost 50 years?

TiG: Yes, it's been 46 years, and I think everyone agrees we are due a Rose Bowl appearance. I don't actually know if anyone cares if we win (against the Ohio State-Michigan loser we might not have much of a chance.) But yes, clinching the Rose Bowl on Nov. 18 at USC would be amazing and would turn the Dec. 2 Big Game against Stanford into an all-day, rub-it-in-their-face, singing-dancing-crying monkey-off-the-back-athon. Seriously, is there any other college football program where fans consistently wonder if the team will win the conference before they die? Worse yet, a lot of fans are getting to the age where they are getting nervous that it might actually happen.

TH: Boy, you guys are setting us up...but yeah, it would be disappointing not to smell the Roses this year.  It's hard to convey how much this means to Old Blues who have waited 48 years for just a small sniff.  Cal's been lousy for a goodly portion of those years, but we've been teased on a few occasions. If you guys miss a field goal against SC in 1975, we go.  If Mike Pawlawski completes that pass against Udub in 1991, we go.  If Dave Barr doesn't separate his shoulder in 1993, we go.  If Mack Brown doesn't sell himself like a 10-dollar whore in 2004, we go.  Given this history, most Cal fans are living in Cliche City, taking it one game at a time.

BN:We know you guys cannot imagine life without JT. But what if JT leaves? Will Cal football program be able to sustain what Tedford has built up in last four years?

TiG: This ties nicely into Question No. 4. I think a lot of fans would simply quit. I would seriously question my faith in all things Cal football-related.

The good news (for us, not for Pac-10 opponents) ? Tedford isn't going anywhere. Sorry, but you don't get new stadiums through mostly private donations without an understanding that you are going to be there until you die. Is there a single program a West Coast guy like Tedford would leave for? Yes, I know Bruins fans have this thought in the back of your minds, but since he re-upped instead of going to Washington after the 2004 season you can stop dreaming now. He isn't going to Florida State or Miami or Arizona State.

(Fingers crossed, knocking on wood, holding rosary, facing Mecca.)

TH: I'm sorry, you were saying?  I think the connection is breaking up...must be a problem on my end.  Seriously, I think it's a virtual certainty that Tedford will leave at some point.  Hopefully that point is twenty-five years from now (and there's no reason to think otherwise at this time).  I do think that JT would leave Cal a changed program - not only in terms of perception around the country, but in more tangible ways as well.  We're bringing our facilities up to Pac-10 standards because of JT.  We've rebuilt recruiting relationships in the Bay Area and LA because of JT.  The HC job at Cal is a much different job today than it was five years ago, so I would think we could maintain a spot in the upper echelon of the conference...if he left.  Which he won't.  Ever.

BN: Thanks again guys. Good luck to you guys rest of this season. Here is to a great game and no injuries this Saturday.

GO BRUINS.