Saturday, September 19, 2009
Cal starting to believe after tough road win
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- After finding all the answers on the field, California quarterback Kevin Riley struggled to find the words to describe what had just taken place.
Cal proved Saturday it can win a road game, something the Golden Bears had done just five times in their last 16 trips away from Strawberry Canyon. The Bears won a nonconference road game several time zones away, which they failed to do in embarrassing fashion last year at Maryland.
Perhaps more importantly, Cal won the hard way, breaking a fourth-quarter deadlock against Minnesota to prevail, 35-21.
Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire
Running back Jahvid Best's five touchdowns made a big statement on the road for Cal.
If only the Bears quarterback could pinpoint the reason ...
"Offensively, we're just more comfortable with each other," Riley said. "We have a tremendous amount of, uh, I don't know, I lost a word. I'm just lost. Go ahead, Jahvid. I can't think of the word."
Fittingly, running back Jahvid Best was there for the save.
"It's about belief," Best said.
"That's it," a smiling Riley said. "There ya go."
Cal is starting to believe it can do special things this season, and Saturday's victory only reinforced the sentiment. The Bears have been here before under head coach Jeff Tedford. Ranked in the top 10. On the cusp of a real breakthrough. They've had the talent, the game-changers on both sides of the ball, but for one reason or another, it hasn't worked out.
Whether it's expectations, me-first stars, chemistry issues or lack of execution between the lines, Cal hasn't taken the step from very good to great.
The Bears might finally be ready.
"I like this team," Tedford said. "I like this team's chemistry, I like this team's leadership, I like their work ethic, I like their togetherness.
"It's a special group that way."
If Tedford could have scripted a game to prepare Cal for the rigors ahead, Saturday's contest would come pretty close. After two blowout wins, Cal needed some adversity, and it got plenty in this one.
Cal entered the fourth quarter deadlocked at 21-21 with the Gophers, who had "won the third quarter," Tedford said. Minnesota had momentarily shut down Best. The Bears were backed up to their own 22-yard line, facing third-and-16 as the sellout crowd roared in their ears. Wide receiver Nyan Boateng had left the game with a fractured foot, leaving Jeremy Ross in his place.
Minnesota blitzed, Best picked it up and Riley found Ross, who beat his man for a 35-yard gain.
"We needed a play to get going, and we got that on third down," Riley said. "After that, everybody on this team knew we were going to win the game."
Two plays later, Riley found Ross again for 31 yards, down to the Minnesota 1-yard line. Best did the rest, scoring the fourth of his team record five rushing touchdowns.
The crowd went silent. Cal had the game in its grasp.
"I'm almost glad that situation came up where they tied it up," Riley said. "Last year and the year before, when [opponents] came back and tied it up and took the lead, we didn't win those games."
Both Tedford and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig were pleased that the passing attack had to be the catalyst in Saturday's win, but Best once again stole the show with his feet. Though Minnesota spied him on every play, Best made the Gophers defense pay for every mistake it made.
Best had the two dynamic touchdown runs (33 and 27 yards), but he was more valuable in avoiding losses and grinding out extra yards. The junior has dealt with his share of injuries (hip, elbow, foot), but his durability showed in the fourth quarter.
"Last year, when the contact would come, I'd get maybe 1 [yard], half a yard, a little bit more," said Best, who put on 10 pounds during the offseason. "This year, I can get through the contact, or, if not, carry the pile for about three yards."
Best's five touchdown runs surely will help him in the quarterback-heavy Heisman Trophy race, but his overall performance (26 carries, 131 yards) didn't surprise Tedford.
"He plays like he always plays," Tedford said. "It's typical of Jahvid."
Perhaps, but this seems more and more like an atypical Cal team. The next few weeks should tell a lot, as the Bears visit Oregon, host nemesis USC and then visit UCLA.
"We're going to face adversity from this point," Best said, "so this game was good for us."