2006 Heartbreak on Cal's Mind in Trip Back to Tucson

Photo: Junior cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson leads the Bears with three interceptions and has averaged 13.7 yards in 12 punt returns.
Anna Hiatt/File
Junior cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson leads the Bears with three interceptions and has averaged 13.7 yards in 12 punt returns.

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In the past five seasons, Arizona is 1-4 against Cal.

But the fact that it isn't 0-5 will serve as motivation when the No. 25 Bears (4-1, 2-0 in the Pac-10) visit Tucson, Ariz., for Saturday's 7 p.m. tilt against the Wildcats (4-2, 2-1) at Arizona Stadium.

Of all people, Cal coach Jeff Tedford admitted the added bit of incentive.

"That is absolutely something that is on our mind," he said. "This is a new team, it is different, but I think the experience last time we were there was a pretty devastating experience. It is very hard to get that type of thing out of your mind."

For once, "that type of thing" has a singular meaning.

On Nov. 11, 2006, the then-No.8 Bears strolled into Tucson with hopes of not only their first Rose Bowl berth since 1959, but national title aspirations as well.

With two future first-day NFL selections in tailback Marshawn Lynch and wide receiver DeSean Jackson manning the offensive front, Cal had put together an eight-game winning streak following its season-opening blunder at Tennessee.

The Wildcats, a sub-.500 squad at the time, proceeded to submit their annual upset performance in a 24-20 win over Cal. The Bears went on to lose to the Trojans and play in the Holiday Bowl.

Few starters from that 2006 team remain on Cal's current roster. One of them is center Alex Mack, who said he clearly remembers the sting from his first season as a regular.

"You can never take (Arizona) lightly," Mack said. "They've always had big expectations every season because they get so many great players down there, so we are not going to take them lightly at all."

For all the seasons that the Wildcats began with high expectations, things may be reaching its pinnacle in 2008.

Though its losses came in heartbreaking fashion in their own right -- a 36-28 upset at New Mexico and last week's one-point nailbiter against Stanford -- Arizona is in prime position to earn its first bowl selection since 1998.

Tedford pointed out the Wildcats' offensive prowess as the main ingredient for their current recipe of success.

"Their whole offensive group is probably the best that we have played (so far in 2008)," he said. "When you take into consideration a veteran quarterback, explosive, talented receivers, a very good running back and a big-play tight end that can play at the line of scrimmage and get down the field vertically -- this is a very explosive offense."

All discussions surrounding Arizona's attack begin with senior quarterback Willie Tuitama, who is set to shatter various Wildcats records, including passing yards (he needs just 29), pass attempts (four) and total offense (172).

Historical implications aside, Tuitama has stepped up his game even further this season, tossing just two picks to 13 touchdowns. His accuracy has also steadily improved, and the senior trails only USC's Mark Sanchez for the conference's top mark in passer rating with 152.2.

"You can really see that his comfort level has grown," Tedford said.

Arizona's bevy of downfield options has only helped Tuitama notch his impressive stats. Wideout Mike Thomas, who went for 1,038 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2007, returned for his senior campaign and has maintained his status as the quarterback's main draw this season.

Terrell Turner and Delashaun Dean have also emerged as steady targets for the Wildcats, while tight end Rob Gronkowski (five touchdowns) also merits mention as one of the best in the nation at his position.

As the Bears are once again a bit of a question mark on offense, even with Jahvid Best slated to play and Nate Longshore being named starting quarterback Cal may need another dominant performance from its defense to leave Tucson with a win on Saturday.

Safety Sean Cattouse, for one, implied that the defense won't be letting its guard down against a dangerous home side.

"I've seen a lot of film on them, and they are a really good team," Cattouse said. "I think statistically, we are evenly matched. They are not a team we can underestimate."


Contact Andrew Kim at [email protected]

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