Jan. 15, 2007
BERKELEY - Perhaps the greatest measure of the level of success to which head coach Jeff Tedford has brought the California football program is the fact that a year which included a share of the Pac-10 Championship, 10 victories, a fourth straight bowl appearance, a third bowl victory, a top 15 final ranking and a fifth consecutive defeat of Stanford in the Big Game has been labeled by some as a disappointment. The reality is that Tedford has lifted the Golden Bears into a golden era not seen in these parts since the early 1950s. California football has become a recognized national power and a source of pride for alumni, fans and students throughout the nation.
Rather than up-and-down, California's 2006 season is better described as down-and-up. A tough season-opening loss to Tennessee was a definite downer, but that was followed by a dominating eight-game winning streak. After back-to-back November losses foiled Bear hopes for a National Championship and a Rose Bowl, the resilient team rose back up and upended archrival Stanford to not only cap a nine-victory regular season, but also to earn a share of the Pac-10 Championship for the first time since 1975.
The season culminated with a dominant performance in the 29th annual Holiday Bowl as Cal rolled to a 45-10 triumph over Texas A&M, manhandling a team which many thought would be too physical for the Pac-10 co-champs. Instead, the Golden Bears were led by running backs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett, who each tallied 100 rushing yards, and linebacker Desmond Bishop, who registered 12 tackles and was the key to the Bears shutting down the Aggies' vaunted option attack.
In addition to advancing to a bowl game for a fourth straight time for the first time in program history, many other firsts were accomplished by the Golden Bears in 2006. The Bears also posted their fifth straight winning season for the first time in over 50 years, their first five-game stretch of scoring 40 or more points, their first eight-game winning streak since 1950 and their first share of a conference title since 1975. In addition, the Bears broke school records for season tickets sold (40,262) and average home attendance (64,318).
Individual highlights also abounded as Lynch and cornerback Daymeion Hughes were named the Pac-10's Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, respectively. Hughes and wide receiver/return specialist DeSean Jackson earned invitations to Orlando, Fla., for the ESPN College Football Awards Shows and five different Golden Bears were recognized as All-Americans - Jackson, Hughes, Lynch, Bishop and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.
The Bears had 18 players recognized as all-conference performers. Bishop, Mebane and center Alex Mack joined Hughes and Lynch on the all-league first team, while Jackson became Cal's first all-conference first team selection at two positions (wide receiver and punt returner) since 1999. In addition, eight Bears were named to the Pac-10 All-Academic teams, led by senior first-team selections Byron Storer and Randy Bundy.
In the record books, Jackson set Pac-10 and California records in punt return touchdowns in a career (5) and a season (4), while Hughes climbed to second in season (8) and career (15) interceptions and Lynch reached third in career rushing yardage while becoming just the second Golden Bear player to record multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Other individual performance of note include Bishop leading the Pac-10 with 114 tackles, punter Andrew Larson stepped right into the lineup and leading the league in net punting and placekicker Tom Schneider connecting on all 46 of his PATs as well as 12-of-13 field goals inside 50 yards, not to mention his matching the school record with a 55-yarder in the Big Game. In his first year of action, quarterback Nate Longshore has thrown for 23 touchdowns and has a chance to become just the second Bear signal-caller to surpass 3,000 passing yards in a season. He was also named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week three times this year.
While the season-opening loss to Tennessee was disappointing, it was not shocking - Cal entered the game with a re-tooled offense under new coordinator Mike Dunbar, essentially a rookie quarterback in Longshore, a new punter and punt returner, and a very inexperienced secondary. Mixing in 106,000 rabid orange-clad fans added up to an opening day loss, but also an easy-to-remember lesson to take everything one play at a time.
The lesson kicked in immediately as the Golden Bears returned to Berkeley and focused in on another major conference opponent. In their home opener, the Bears crushed the Big 10's Minnesota, then cruised over Portland State before mashing nationally-ranked Arizona State. After beating Oregon State on the road, the Bears shocked 11th-ranked Oregon, 45-24, with a Homecoming performance to remember before an electrifying partisan sellout crowd of 72,516. That Oregon game was the first of three Memorial Stadium sellouts on the year, another first in over 50 years. In fact, Cal had only sold out three other non-Big Games since the early 1950s.
Three more victories lifted Cal into the national top 10, the third straight year that Cal has been ranked in the top 10.
However, a tough road game at Arizona resulted in a heart-breaking 24-20 loss which featured multiple near-misses. In that game, Jackson tallied 285 all-purpose yards, including a 95-yard punt return touchdown. The loss effectively knocked the Golden Bears out of the national championship picture, but the biggest game of the year still loomed.
Nov. 18, 2006 was the date of Cal's showdown with four-time defending Pac-10 champion USC in Los Angeles and it will be remembered as the day Cal came closest to its first Rose Bowl bid since the 1958 season. The two league frontrunners went toe-to-toe for the entire game, with Cal holding a 9-6 lead with 20 minutes to go in the game, but those 20 minutes saw the Trojans knock home a field goal followed by a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to escape with the victory and an eventual Rose Bowl appearance.
After a bye week, the Golden Bears regrouped and then sent their seniors off in class with a fifth straight victory over archrival Stanford in the Big Game. It is Cal's longest win streak in the ancient rivalry since the early 1920s and it improved Tedford's record to a perfect 5-0 against the Cardinal.
While there has been some disappointment in Berkeley this year, the level of expectations for the Cal Bears is higher than it has been in over a half-century. And while there have been some tough losses, one simple fact must be remembered: Cal has lost 20 games in five years under Tedford; the Bears lost 43 games in the five years prior to his arrival. Once again in 2006, the ups have clearly overwhelmed the downs in yet another successful season for the Golden Bears.