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Cal running back Marshawn Lynch, left, shows the form that has many touting him as a candidate for a Heisman Trophy this year; he rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota in Saturday's 42-17 win. At right, DeSean Jackson catches one of quarterback Nate Longshore's four touchdown passes, giving him three TD receptions for the day. (John Dunbar photos)
 

Learning to love the bomb
Also the running game, the pass rush, the play-action fake, Jeff Tedford, and everything else that makes the Bears golden

| 13 September 2006

Until he earned his bachelor's degree in political science in 1990, Sven Miller was a Saturday fixture in the student section at Memorial Stadium, cheering on a Golden Bears football team that was initially dreadful, later lackluster, and, by the end of his college career, brimming with promise. He can still see himself sauntering up Durant with friends to catch part of the Arizona game during the dog days of '89, only to hurry the pace as the victory cannon boomed again and again, signaling a series of touchdowns in what turned out to be one of Cal's most dramatic comebacks ever. Now a middle-school teacher and the father of two young sons, he continues to root for the blue-and-gold - and, often, to wear it - and discerns a kind of beauty in what he calls the "run-pass dialectic."


When it comes to the Bears' football fortunes, longtime fan and Cal alum Sven Miller tries to see the big picture. His first year on campus, 1986, the team went 2-9 under Coach Joe Kapp, logging just one more victory than it has already in 2006. Buoyed by Saturday's win over Minnesota (above) - and with the previous week's rout safely in the past - he's looking ahead to games with USC, UCLA, and Stanford. (Barry Bergman photo)
 

My own spectator sport of choice, on the other hand, is baseball; neither my high school nor the two colleges kind enough to admit me even had a football program. I saw Army beat Navy at the age of 10 or so - at least I think I did - and I've managed to squeeze in a lone Cal game since then, flinching each time the cannon went off. Here in Bear Territory, The Play may refer to the 1982 Big Game, a notorious marching band, and a whole lot of laterals, but I have a different take. To me, "the play" calls to mind that ineffable moment in 1986 when Mookie Wilson's lazy grounder squibbed through Bill Buckner's legs, giving the gasping New York Mets new life en route to their first World Series victory since the "miracle Mets" of '69. That's what I call a big game.

With a top-10 ranking coming into the season, however, this was to be the Year of the Bear, a semester-long celebration of the Little Pac-10 Team That Could. And it's hard to imbibe the spirit when you can't tell a trap block from a triple option. So, as the 2006 campaign approached, Miller - whose father attended Berkeley as a grad student, and whose most vivid memories of Cal football include The Play - agreed to be my guide for the home opener against Minnesota's Golden Gophers (seriously!) and provide some much-needed perspective.

Perspectives changed, of course, when Cal was torpedoed by No. 23 Tennessee on its maiden voyage of '06. In a matter of hours, the Bears went from contenders to bums in the conventional wisdom of pigskin punditry, sinking to No. 22 and haunted by the deafening taunts of 100,000 Tennessee fans: "Overrated, overrated."

Except, well, maybe not.

A civilized mob

Miller is confident at the opening kickoff. Within minutes, though, Minnesota is up 7-0, aided by the kind of defensive slips that undid Cal a week earlier. Then Marshawn Lynch, the Bears' star running back, breaks a tackle on the Gophers' kickoff return, a move Miller regards cautiously as "a good sign." Like quarterback Nate Longshore - indeed, the entire Cal squad - the fleet-footed Lynch, a candidate for a Heisman Trophy as the NCAA's top player, experienced an uncharacteristically flat-footed 60 minutes last week in the Volunteer State.

The optimism is short-lived. Longshore's very first pass is dropped, another disturbing echo of the Tennessee trouncing. The Bears run three plays and are forced to punt. In this battle of golden critters, it's the Gophers who are showing their teeth.

But Miller, who teaches history and social studies to sixth- and seventh-graders, is taking the long view. Millennia-long, that is. He tries his best to convey to a lover of baseball - that peaceful, pastoral evocation of springtime, in George Carlin's famous formulation - the solace he finds in the ritualistic nature of football violence, a significant measure of human progress compared with the days of the Roman Empire, when "people were killing each other, and the crowd wanted the blood."

This crowd of 55,000 gives no indication of bloodlust, it's true. In fact, by the standards of Miller's college years - when undergrads were known to amuse themselves at halftime by lobbing assorted fruits into visiting tubas - the student section is positively sedate. But I doubt most fans will content themselves with the players' civilized use of pads and helmets, and the knowledge that on the gridiron, at least, war is only a metaphor. What's it all about, after all? Winning? Or how we play the game?

On Cal's second possession, Longshore hooks up with Robert Jordan for a 24-yard touchdown. This prompts Miller's observation about the "run-pass dialectic" - once a poli-sci major, apparently, always a poli-sci major - and the way opening up the running game creates more passing opportunities, and vice versa. The Gophers answer another Cal touchdown with a stunning 99-yard kickoff return, sucking the air out of the suddenly quiet stadium. As the quarter rolls on, though, so do the Bears, dominating on both sides of the ball. With seven minutes left in the first half, Longshore hurls a 48-yard bomb to DeSean Jackson, giving the team its third TD and a 21-14 lead.

"That," exults Miller, "was beautiful."

Minutes later, Longshore hits Jackson for yet another big score, and it's 28-14. The crowd is into it now, though Miller, a Bay Area native, draws a distinction between the increasingly raucous Cal fans and those, say, in the South, where football borders on religion. "It's pretty benign at Berkeley," he says with a hint of pride. "It's not some crazy, fascist mob that's gonna go and burn down a building."

With under a minute left in the half, the crowd, warming to its role as the so-called 12th man, is making so much noise that the Gophers can't hear their own signals and are called for a false start on third-and-nine, pushing them back to Cal's 25-yard line. An eight-yard pass moves them to the 17 with seconds to play, and they settle for a field goal.

"That's all right," Miller says, pumping his fist for emphasis. "Just three points."

The fog is moving in over the hills. The gloom, meanwhile, appears to be lifting.

Hope and hype

Miller's first year on campus, 1986, was Joe Kapp's last as Cal's head coach. The team went 2-9, but redeemed a hideous campaign with a glorious Big Game upset. Kapp's replacement, Bruce Snyder, led the Bears slowly out of the swamp, grabbing a bowl-game victory in 1990 - the year Miller graduated - and another the next year. Cal launched that '91 season with an 80-24 blowout of UOP, and was ranked No. 7 by the time of its final game against Washington. The Bears were widely expected to make their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1959, but fell to the Huskies. Then Snyder left for ASU, and the Cal roller-coaster headed south again.

Which is why Miller was elated when Jeff Tedford signed on as head coach in 2001. And why he was both thrilled and relieved when Berkeley extended Tedford's contract in 2004.

"Snyder brought the team out of the doldrums, and then we lost him," he explains. "[Tom] Holmoe had five straight losing seasons. [Steve] Mariucci got us back to a winning record, then we lost him after one season. So the third time around, when we finally got Tedford, a lot of people were saying, 'Look, we're concerned enough about football now - don't let this guy go.' I was dreading that we'd let him go. Because to me the Cal cycle had been, build your hopes up and then crush 'em. But they kept him. And that was fantastic."

Hopes were dashed in a whole new way in 2004, when the 10-2 Bears were shut out of the Rose Bowl by what many considered a badly out-of-whack ranking system - though their loss to underdog Texas Tech in the less prestigious Holiday Bowl helped to blunt the sting of injustice. In the wake of last year's 8-4 record (plus a bowl victory), fans were buoyed once again this fall by the team's No. 9 national ranking, its highest coming into a season since 1952.

And then came Tennessee. To Miller, the rumors of Cal's demise are as premature as the early predictions of Rose Bowls and national championships. "The preseason hype was we're an elite team, but those expectations just weren't realistic." He shrugs. "Turns out we're not quite there."

But things are definitely looking up. Lynch is now racking up the yards and has rushed for a touchdown. Midway into the third quarter the score is 35-17, and the momentum is all in Cal's direction. The defense is shutting Minnesota down. By the time Lynch lunges for his second touchdown early in the fourth quarter, it's all over but the shouting, which takes the form of call-and-response from opposite parts of the stands: "Go. Bears. Go. Bears."

"Their back's already broken, but this is kick 'em when they're down," Miller says. "That's a body blow."

The score is 42-17. Last week, for the moment, is history.

Context is everything

It's history that concerns Miller. And not so much ancient Roman history as recent Cal history. Given where we've come from, he suggests, these are the glory days. And the future looks better still.

Today's game, he says, is "tremendously hopeful, a strong win against a good team - not a top-10 team, but a good, solid team." Save for some early miscues, the Bears' high-quality play "shows the team is gelling, and bodes very well for the season."

"On one level Tennessee was disappointing, and this is encouraging. Hopefully Cal will have a good season. But from another perspective, I still have that giddy sense of, 'Wow, this is a winning program.' That's awesome. I'm seeing them play well. They didn't just squeak out a win here. They pounded out a win. And that's just not what Cal used to be when I was here."

So keep Tennessee in context, Miller says. Aim for a winning season. Beat USC, beat UCLA, beat Stanford. Keep the coach, build the program. Remember where you are.

"It's not really in the Cal spirit to end a winning season going, 'Ah, that's disappointing.' That's for, like, Nebraska. They live for football. For Cal to come away with an 8-4 record and think, 'That's so disappointing' - dude, c'mon.

"Hey, I want to be No. 1 in the country and go to the Rose Bowl. You want your expectations to be exceeded. But it's crazy to be disappointed by a team that goes 9-3 or 8-4 and goes to a bowl game. I'd just remind people that from my perspective, it's great to have winning ways, because there were some baaad years. You're forgetting your history when you're disappointed by something other than a top-10 finish."

I know just what he means. As any Mets fan can tell you, getting to No. 1 takes time, and sometimes it takes a miracle. Hope is alive. If I haven't quite imbibed the spirit, at least I've wetted my lips.

Ya gotta believe.