Now that the defense has joined the party, it’s time to think the unthinkable: The Cal Bears are the best team in the Pac-10 Conference.
The assumption has been that Southern Cal, based on its overwhelming success under Pete Carroll, is the best. But the Trojans had to scramble to beat Washington State and they beat Washington by only six points at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where they haven’t lost since Tyrone Willingham was coaching Stanford.
Meanwhile, the Bears just keep getting better. On Saturday, they overwhelmed an Oregon team that had been ranked No. 11 in the country and was first in both average points and yardage in the conference. The final of 45-24 doesn’t begin to tell the story, because Cal was up by 38-10 late in the third quarter.
Though there were plenty of heroes, it was the defense which set the tone for the game. Brandon Hampton intercepted the first pass of the game by Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon, setting up the first Cal touchdown. The Bears’ defense forced five turnovers. There had been flashes of this kind of defensive play in earlier games. But this was the first complete effort — and against a quality opponent.
After the game, Cal coach Jeff Tedford said the Bears were coming close to their potential. When I asked him this week what he’s looking for, he said, “Well, you look for mistake-free games, not just eliminating physical mistakes but mental ones. You want a penalty-free game. You always look for that perfect game, which you’re probably never going to get, but this one came close.”
There had been periods in earlier games when the Cal defense had played very well, but this was the only game where it dominated throughout, until Oregon scored a couple of meaningless late touchdowns.
It’s no fluke, either. This is a very talented group, with incredible speed. There are probably nine starters who will eventually play in the NFL (not all are seniors this year). Cornerback Daymeion Hughes and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane could both be taken in the first round in April. Hughes may be better right now than the starting corners for either the 49ers or Raiders. I know, I know, that’s not saying much.
Some of the younger players have very bright futures. Sophomore linebackers Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder, who started as a true freshman last year, have unlimited potential. Redshirt freshman Syd’Quan Thompson, pushed into the starting lineup when Tim Mixon was injured, has made mistakes. But when you see how fast he comes up on run support, you can see his potential, too. (Mixon has applied to the NCAA for a medical redshirt year and will probably get it.)
There are some hurdles ahead, including a big one Saturday against Washington State at Pullman, where the Bears have not won since 1979. The Cougars have an outstanding pass rush, led by Mkristo Bruce, who leads the nation with 10 sacks. Jason Hill, who already holds school career records for yardage and touchdowns, has caught five more touchdownpasses this season.
But with the defense finally catching up with the offense, the Bears look poised to rearrange the conference standings when they meet USC in the big showdown on Nov. 18 in Los Angeles.