The Cal Golden Bears have made themselves a most unwelcome guest so far this season, and they hope to keep up their rude ways on Saturday against USC.
Cal has gone into two of the most hostile environments in college football, Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. and Husky Stadium in Seattle, and come away with convincing wins each time. While the Bears have also managed two home victories, they have saved their best performances for the road in taking down then-No. 15 Michigan State and then-No. 12 Washington.
Including last season’s finale at Rutgers, the Bears are riding a three-game road win streak, and have won their last three games when traveling to play USC. The No. 20 Trojans will be the third straight nationally-ranked road opponent for Cal, as tough a travel schedule as any in the country.
The Bears’ road success may be linked to their miniscule home crowds. When coming from a laid-back Memorial Stadium crowd of less than 30,000, it’s understandable that the excitement outweighs the trepidation when playing in front of 70,000-plus crazed fans. With the Los Angeles Coliseum expecting a crowd in excess of 60,000 for Saturday’s matchup, the Bears will once again be surrounded by a sea of opposition fans.
“Even when the crowd’s going against you, it still gets you juiced,” Cal senior cornerback Jemeel Powell said. “I love playing at home, but when we go away, it’s just a different atmosphere.”
There’s little question that any college football player would rather play in front of a huge, loud audience than a scattered, sometimes distracted one.
“Playing in front of that big crowd, that’s what you want every week,” senior wide receiver LaShaun Ward said. “It’s what you used to think about and dream about.”
A whole bunch of the Bears will have even more motivation on Saturday against USC. Approximately half of the Cal players hail from southern California, with several of them choosing Cal over the Trojans. Although players like Powell and Ward are happy in Berkeley, they know there will be some extra attention on them come Saturday, both from the stands and the other sideline.
“A lot of times you have old teammates or friends on [southern California] teams, and it makes for a more competitive atmosphere,” said Powell, whose mother bought 37 tickets for the game. “We don’t want to get beat by people we know. It’s worse than being beaten by strangers.”
Other key Cal players from the bottom of the state including quarterback Kyle Boller, safety Nnamdi Asomugha and wide receiver Geoff McArthur. Boller expects a similar crowd to that of last year’s game at UCLA, where he had more than 100 friends and family in the stands, so there should be at least a smattering of blue and gold in the swarm of red at the Coliseum.
The Bears have played both USC and UCLA tough in the past few years, including sweeps of the SoCal schools in both 1999 and 2000. While Cal suffered blowouts at the hands of both last season, the recent resurgence under new head coach Jeff Tedford undoubtedly has drawn attention from the rest of the Pac-10. Teams are taking the Bears seriously.
“It’s just an extraordinary story what Tedford hs been able to do in such a short time,” USC head coach Pete Carroll said this week. “He’s got that team playing very well in all phases of the game.”
So the Bears aren’t likely to sneak up on the Trojans, who will be in a bad mood after losing to Washington State in overtime last week. Both teams are 1-1 in conference play, and the winner of Saturday’s game will be headed in the right direction toward a bowl game while the loser will be facing a tough climb to the top of the standings.
And for the Bears, there’s the possibility of seeing yet another huge crowd filing out of the stadium in silence, perhaps even before the final whistle with their team hopelessly behind on the scoreboard.
“When you can shut them up, all those people, it’s just a great feeling,” Ward said.
Notes: Boller was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Washington. The senior threw for a career-high five touchdowns against the Huskies... Starting wide receivers Geoff McArthur and Jonathon Makonnen are both day-to-day with hamstring injuries. McArthur took part in just two plays against Washington after straining his hamstring in practice last week, while Makonnen suffered his injury during the game. Junior Vincent Strang filled in for McArthur and caught two passes, including a 55-yard touchdown... Junior guard Jon Geisel is questionable for Saturday’s game. Geisel missed the Washington game, with David Hays filling in... Tedford praised true freshman Donnie McCleskey for his play at rover against Washington. “Donnie gives 100 percent every single snap,” Tedford said. “We don’t lose much with him in there.” The usual starter, Nnamdi Asomugha, played cornerback for most of the game to match up with huge WR Reggie Wiliams... USC safety Troy Polamalu, who Carroll calls his team’s “best football player,” is questionable for Saturday’s game after suffering an injury against Washington State last week. Tedford said he expects Polamalu to play.