Having rebounded from a season-opening blowout, QB Nate Longshore and Cal are pointing toward a showdown with USC
EVEN AT prestigious universities, "Nobel Prize! Nobel Prize!" isn't usually the chant of choice among rowdy football fans. But that was the congratulatory serenade that Cal physics professor George Smoot heard from the home student section at halftime of the Golden Bears' 45--24 victory over Oregon on Oct. 7. Four days earlier Smoot had won the Nobel Prize for physics for his research advancing the big bang theory of the universe's origins, a big bang far different from the one that shook the Bears' universe seven weeks ago: a 35--18 season-opening loss at Tennessee that blew their national reputation to bits.
Now it turns out that Cal's hope of earning a place among the country's elite teams wasn't irreparably shattered. The Bears, who were ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll but fell to No. 22 after the Tennessee loss, have played like a powerhouse ever since, with six straight one-sided victories, including a 21--3 drubbing of Washington State last Saturday. The embodiment of Cal's resurgence is quarterback Nate Longshore, a 6'5", 233-pound sophomore who has had a renaissance of his own. After throwing for only 85 yards and being pulled in the third quarter against Tennessee, Longshore has played as well as any quarterback in the nation, with a pair of 300-yard passing games and three games with four touchdown passes.
He and the rest of the Cal offense, which scored more than 40 points in each of the five games after the loss to Tennessee, weren't as prolific against Washington State. The Cougars limited Longshore to 17-of-31 passing for 176 yards and two interceptions. Nevertheless tailback Marshawn Lynch ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile the defense twice stopped Washington State on downs inside the Bears' 20-yard line, allowing Cal to coast to victory.
Longshore's struggles against Tennessee were understandable, considering his lack of experience. He broke his left ankle in the second quarter of his first college game, against Sacramento State last season, and missed the rest of the year. After the Bears' 42--17 victory over Minnesota in their second game this season, Longshore joked that his performance—he completed 22 of 31 passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns—was less satisfying than his mere survival. "I finally made it through a game," he said. "I'd never played the fourth quarter. It was exciting."
The Bears are glad to see Longshore back in good humor after the death of his father last spring. Todd Longshore was 49 when he suffered a pulmonary embolism in April. It's not surprising that Nate was able to bounce back after such a rough season opener; it was only a minor setback compared with the immeasurable loss he had already suffered, and his resiliency stood him well on the football field. "His best quality as a quarterback is his ability to put aside the things that go wrong and focus on what comes next," offensive tackle Mike Gibson said after the Washington State victory. "Today he threw an early interception, but the next time he came into the huddle he sounded just as confident as ever, like it never happened. The rest of the team picks up on that."
Although the winning streak has lifted Cal in the rankings, the Bears haven't had the most rigorous schedule. They've beaten only two teams that were ranked nationally at the time they played them: No. 11 Oregon and No. 22 Arizona State. Besides Washington State and Minnesota, Cal's other opponents have been Portland State, a Division I-AA school, and Oregon State.
The rest of Cal's schedule doesn't appear terribly taxing either, which means the Bears won't be able to fully atone for their first-game failure unless they beat No. 3 USC on the road on Nov. 18. It's likely that the winner will take the Pac-10 championship, a title that would at least send Cal to its first Rose Bowl since 1959. Given the way that unbeaten teams have been falling lately, even a berth in the national championship game isn't out of the question if Cal runs the table.
That dream seemed lost in the rubble at Tennessee last month, but not to the Bears. "Other people are realizing that this team is capable of doing some pretty great things," Longshore says, "but we knew it all along."
The Sorry Seven
Seven teams in Division I-A remain undefeated, and coincidentally seven teams are still looking for their first victory. Here is a look at the unmagnificent seven and when each might have its best shot to pick up a win.
|<p>TEAM</p>||<p>LAST WINLESS</p>||<p>BEST CHANCE</p>|
North Carolina, Nov. 25
La.-Monroe, Nov. 11
Ball State, Oct. 28
San Diego State
UNLV, Nov. 11
Oregon State, Nov. 18
Bowling Green, Oct. 28
*Program started in 2002; has never had winless season
Big 12 Foes Seek Identities
The Big 12 season has played out with relatively little notice, as the conference's teams have been overshadowed by the Big Ten's top-ranked Ohio State and surprising No. 3 Michigan, by the Pac 10's unbeaten and always glamorous USC, and, it seems, by the entire SEC. But the meeting of Nebraska and Texas, the respective leaders of the Big 12 North and South, this Saturday in Lincoln is a matchup worthy of the spotlight.
A victory for the Longhorns (3--0 in the Big 12, 6--1 overall) not only would establish them as the class of the conference but also could help them gain ground in the BCS rankings. Despite being ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, the defending national champions were only ninth when the first BCS numbers were released on Sunday, and it's tough to tell which ranking is more accurate. The Longhorns are not in the same class as Ohio State, which beat them 24--7 in Austin last month, but their schedule of mostly nondescript opponents has not revealed much else. Defeating the Cornhuskers would keep Texas, which rolled over Baylor 63--31 last Saturday, among the cluster of one-loss teams with a realistic hope of slipping into the national-title game.
A victory for Nebraska (also 3--0, 6--1) would indicate that the rebuilding of the program under third-year coach Bill Callahan has moved into high gear. The last time the Cornhuskers had a chance to make that kind of statement, on Sept. 16, they lost to USC 28--10. Nebraska's offense played it so close to the vest—quarterback Zac Taylor threw only 16 times despite trailing nearly the entire game—that it seemed Callahan's main priority was to avoid a blowout. Texas presents the Huskers another chance to prove they can compete with Top 10--caliber teams.
Lately the West Coast offense that Callahan installed has given way to a punishing ground game reminiscent of the Huskers' glory days. Nebraska has four backs—Marlon Lucky, Brandon Jackson, Cody Glenn and Kenny Wilson—who each have at least 60 carries and 300 yards, and the team's 207.7 rushing yards per game ranks 11th in the country. But the Longhorns excel at shutting down the run. They allow an average of 47.7 yards per game, second best in the country.
Regardless of the outcome, the Texas-Nebraska matchup could be a preview of the Big 12 title game on Dec. 2 in Kansas City, Mo. By then the Longhorns and the Cornhuskers will know each other quite well. By the end of the day on Saturday, they will know themselves even better.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
GOOD SIGN Since his nightmare in Knoxville, Longshore has thrown 17 touchdown passes.
RED STORM Lucky is averaging 6.3 yards a carry in the Huskers' revived ground game.