Cal hopes lower expectations lead to more success
BERKELEY – The talk of the Heisman Trophy, a Rose Bowl and BCS bids that was so prevalent around California last year feels as far away as the Golden Bears’ last outright Pac-10 title more than a half-century ago.
After yet another promising season came to a disappointing finish, and with star running back Jahvid Best off to the NFL, expectations are much lower for Cal in 2010.
A team that made it to No. 6 in the country last September before finishing outside the Top 25 for the third straight season enters this year picked seventh in the Pac-10.
“Each year brings new challenges and you approach each year differently,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “Last year with really high expectations, a lot of talk was, ‘We welcome them. We’ll do this or that.’ That’s changed. We’re not going into it with that mindset anymore because I do not want to get into the situation where if we stub our toe the whole world caved in. It felt like it. That’s not what we need. That’s not how we need to live.”
That’s exactly what happened last year. The lofty preseason projections were followed by a 3-0 start that led many around Cal to believe the team would finally make it back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since after the 1958 season.
But in less time than it takes a rose to wilt, the Bears lost back to back games to Oregon and Southern California by a combined 72-6. Tedford said that even when the team was 8-3, it felt like 3-8 because of the preseason hype. After a 42-10 defeat at Washington and a Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah, Cal finished 8-5.
“When we are the top dog it just seems like we fall flat on our face,” senior linebacker Mike Mohamed said. “That’s something that we’ve talked about. When we do get to the top, what do we have to do to stay up there. We’re capable of getting up there, but we have to be capable of staying up there.”
Based on the preseason prognostications, most experts doubt whether Cal can even get close to the top this season.
That’s just the kind of talk the Bears want to hear.
“They tell us not to read the papers and not to watch TV and all that stuff,” tailback Shane Vereen said. “But it’s really hard not to. It’s hard not to listen to what is being said. So we know. We know that we’re not slotted to win a lot of games. We’re picked to finish seventh. We know all that. It just adds fuel to the fire.”
Vereen has the task of replacing Best, who finished his career at Cal with 2,668 yards rushing, 62 catches for 533 yards and 35 total touchdowns.
Vereen got a head start on that last year when Best missed the final four games of the season after a frightening fall knocked him out and sent him to the hospital with a concussion and sore back.
Vereen rushed for 566 yards and six touchdowns in the final four games for Cal. Vereen’s best performance came in the Big Game at Stanford, when he carried 42 times for 193 yards and three scores in a 34-28 victory. Vereen finished his sophomore season with 852 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
“It was important for the team and for myself to show that I can do it and that I actually did it,” Vereen said. “The running game for our offense is make or break for us because it helps so many other parts of the offense.”
A big year for Vereen will be especially helpful for quarterback Kevin Riley, who bore the brunt of the criticism for the offense’s struggles a year ago. Riley shone at times but was woefully inconsistent. He completed only 54.7 percent of his passes and struggled when being pressured by the defense.
Tedford went into camp saying Riley was his starter unless he was beaten out in August by Beau Sweeney or Brock Mansion. Tedford pointed out that Riley was the active leader in the Pac-10 in wins, touchdown passes and starts, adding that he hopes that experience pays off on the field.
“This is his team,” Tedford said. “It’s his senior year. Kevin’s not stupid. He sees what’s been out there. Even though he feels like he has a lot to prove, I don’t want him thinking he has a lot to prove. I want him playing his game and doing his best and have a little bit of fun with it and not put so much stress on himself.”
Riley’s teammates saw a big difference in the quarterback at spring practice and during informal summer workouts. The key is how that translates to the field once the season starts.
“This is the hardest I’ve ever seen him work,” Vereen said. “This is the most focused I’ve seen him. He’s established himself as a leader on this team and the leader of this offense.”
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