Bears Hit the Road, Emphasis on Avoiding Gopher Holes

Photo: <b>Cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson</b> will have his hands full with Minnesota receiver Eric Decker. Decker had 1,074 receving yards in 2008.
Nick Fradkin/Staff
Cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson will have his hands full with Minnesota receiver Eric Decker. Decker had 1,074 receving yards in 2008.

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Photo: <b>Cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson</b> will have his hands full with Minnesota receiver Eric Decker. Decker had 1,074 receving yards in 2008.   

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To prepare for Saturday's road opener at Minnesota, the Cal football team surrounded itself this week with signs of what caused last year's struggles away from Memorial Stadium. Literally.

Posters hanging up around the Bears' locker room reminded them that, "Mentally tough teams win on the road, regardless of the situation." Others tried to convince them that, "It doesn't matter where we sleep. It doesn't matter where we eat."

Because all that did seem to matter in 2008, as Cal won just one game on the road, against lowly Washington State. The team went undefeated at home but encountered all kinds of trouble outside of Strawberry Canyon, falling to both conference rivals (USC, Oregon State) and upstarts (Maryland).

"We kind of got off-track going away (last season), we weren't really as focused," linebacker D.J. Holt said. "So we're going to be more ready this time."

On Saturday morning, the Bears (2-0) visit the Golden Gophers' new TCF Bank Stadium at 9 a.m. PDT, having not won a game at an opponent's home field in over a year. They also realize, in this season of great expectations, the importance of bucking the trend.

"If we're going to be talking about Rose Bowl at all, we've got to pretty much win all the games on the road," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said.

Players emphasized throughout the week that experience makes this year's team better equipped for the challenges of away games, such as hostile environments, altered schedules and different weather. The latter two were factors in the Bears' loss to Maryland last season and could be again on Saturday, with kickoff at Minnesota coinciding roughly with the time that most people on the West Coast are waking up.

The consensus is that having been through it already is going to help.

"We're not going to be as mentally weak as we've been in the past," nose tackle Derrick Hill said. "We'll be much stronger, being able to adapt and adjust to all those hard things."

Hill is one of eight returning starters on Cal's defense, four of whom are seniors. Compare that to the relative inexperience of last year's team and the Bears have veterans who have been through hectic road trips before and can help the younger players stay sharp before and during the game.

"The main thing is just to stay calm," linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "We've had two games (at home), so for the younger guys it's like you've been there, done that now. You shouldn't have to worry about playing somewhere else. Basically stay calm, do your job and you should be fine."

The Gophers (2-0), meanwhile, are experienced as well, returning 17 starters from last year's team. They replaced their coordinators on both sides of the ball over the offseason, but return playmakers on offense and defense in receiver Eric Decker and linebacker Nate Triplett.

Asked what he could see on film about the Minnesota offense, Bears safety Marcus Ezeff was brief:

"They go to Decker," he said.

The preseason All-America receiver had 1,074 receiving yards last year and is just under 300 through two games in 2009. He ranks third nationally in both receptions and yards per game. In fact, Decker is such a big part of the offense that he has accounted for nearly half of the Gophers' completions and 63.4 percent of their receiving yards.

"Pretty good receiver," Holt said. "They throw the ball to him 80 percent of the time. But it's nothing that we can't handle. Just come out and jump on them fast, see where that takes us."


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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