Vereen Carries Cal Northward for Regular-Season Finale

Photo: Tailback Jahvid Best will not play in the regular-season finale against Washington.
Nick Fradkin/File
Tailback Jahvid Best will not play in the regular-season finale against Washington.

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For the last week and a half, the No. 19 Cal football team has fielded questions about the timing of its second bye. Would the Bears have liked to play again right after the Stanford game? Does the fact that they didn't kill the momentum from that win?

But when tailback Shane Vereen walked into Tuesday's press conference, sat down and told reporters that he was "all recovered," that "everything is pretty good" in terms of his body, it seemed to say that the late-season reprieve was the best thing that could have happened to Cal.

Heading into Saturday's season finale against Washington, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m., from Husky Stadium, the Bears are in a position to close out their season with wins in six of their last seven games.

It's a position that they would not be in without Vereen, and the job that the sophomore has done since taking over the starting spot for the still-sidelined Jahvid Best.

Cal's two best Pac-10 wins-against Arizona at home and the Cardinal on the road-came with Vereen playing virtually the entire game out of the backfield. Against the Wildcats, Vereen carried 30 times. Against Stanford, he toted the ball 42 times.

And while he's clearly a tough runner, that many carries will take a toll on anybody's body.

"Stanford's a very physical team, especially on defense," Vereen said. "So when you're going against a team like that it's going to take you a couple more days than normal to recover."

Which is why the bye week couldn't have come at a better time, than with Vereen hurting and one game remaining on the regular-season schedule. Especially since, when coach Jeff Tedford was asked this week if he could see Vereen carrying as many times against the Huskies as he did against the Cardinal, Tedford just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Yeah."

At stake this Saturday, before the Bears (8-3, 5-3 in the Pac-10) find out on Sunday where they'll be headed for their seventh bowl game in the last seven seasons, is the fulfillment of the goal that they set for themselves during their first bye week-after their inauspicious 0-2 start in conference play.

They came out of the bye saying that their new goal for the season was to go 7-0 the rest of the way-a goal that, players said this week, they truly believed in, even with how sobering the losses to Oregon and USC were.

When Best went down against Oregon State and the team followed suit, they simply shifted the goal to 6-1. Washington is the final obstacle in the way of that original goal, as well as the still-alive prospect of a 10-win season.

"I think our confidence has really grown after that little fluster," senior tackle Mike Tepper said. "We knew we could win big games. We're no slouch."

Neither are the Huskies. One year removed from its winless 2008, Washington (4-7, 3-5) announced its re-emergence under coach Steve Sarkisian by beating then-No. 3 USC at home on Sept 19. In fact, all four of the Huskies' wins this season have come on their home turf, including a narrow win over Arizona and a blowout of Washington State in the Apple Cup last weekend.

"There's a big difference from last year to this year," defensive end Tyson Alualu said of Washington. "They're not the same team."

Tailback Chris Polk is a big reason why-he's already rushed for 1,019 yards, becoming the first freshman in Huskies history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. But Washington's success starts with Jake Locker, the strong, speedy dual-threat quarterback who leads the Pac-10 in total offense.

"He's like a triple threat," linebacker Devin Bishop said. "He has the boot, he's a great passer and he's fast on his feet. He's like a potential running back back there at quarterback. ... We're going to have to contain him or it might get out of control."


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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