Cal Hits the Road: Next Stop Fresno

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Fans from all over the region will converge on the one major school in its one major city Saturday, ready for one of the biggest games in recent memory.

The stadium will be packed, the players will be juiced, the fans will be rowdy when the Cal football team meets. . . Fresno State.

Not a matchup that would have Keith Jackson et al. drooling on their microphones. But for the Bulldogs, it's big.

Very big.

"We very rarely get Pac-10 teams to come here - we usually have to play those games on the road," FSU head coach Pat Hill said. "This is the first time a California team in the Pac-10 has come to Fresno. This is big for our community."

Bulldog Stadium is expected to sell out all 41,000 seats for the 7:15 p.m. kickoff time tomorrow.

Fresh off a 17-15 road loss to Illinois, the Bears (1-1) can't afford to sleepwalk into this one.

"I'm sure that it will be very loud and they'll be riled up," Cal head coach Tom Holmoe said. "We'll have to play on an even keel and not get too much into the pageantry of the game and play a really emotional but solid and poised game."

The Bulldogs (0-2) are coming off a bye week following a narrow loss to No. 8 UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Both of their losses have been to ranked teams - FSU dropped its season opener, 43-10, at No. 12 Ohio State - and the Bulldogs are a better team than their record suggests.

In contrast to the Fighting Illini's grinding style, FSU is a finesse team on offense. The Bulldogs like to get the ball to their receivers outside and bounce runs both between and outside the tackles.

They have a solid quarterback in David Carr (243.5 yards per game this season) and a pair of explosive running backs in junior Paris Gaines and sophomore Derrick Ward, who accounted for a combined 1,486 rushing yards last season. Ward is questionable for tomorrow's game (knee) and Gaines is probable (knee). Sophomore James Tillman has started in their absence.

FSU also boasts an undersized but speedy corps of receivers. Senior Rodney Wright is a big-play threat at flanker (68 catches for 1,007 yards in 1999) and 5-foot-7 junior Charles Smith starts at split end (52 catches for 600 yards in '99).

"They're a little bit more explosive than we might have seen at Illinois last week," Holmoe admitted. "They have a great tradition of being fast on the outside and having good skill guys on offense."

To Cal's credit, the Bears have not had a lot of trouble with skill players this season. Illinois was able to grind the defense down by pounding the ball, but the secondary shut down quarterback and All-America candidate Kurt Kittner and limited the Illini to 112 passing yards.

The Bulldogs also bring a solid defense to the field. They held UCLA's potent offense to 24 points, and OSU's big score had a lot to do with the four turnovers the offense committed.

Senior outside linebacker Orlando Huff is FSU's best defensive player. He leads the team with 22 tackles, including four for a loss. Five-foot-seven linebacker Tim Skipper is undersized but tenacious in the middle and Cal transfer Thabiti Lockhart anchors the defensive line at nose tackle.

The Bears had trouble moving the ball against Illinois last week. They had prime field position a number of times thanks to a superlative performance by punter Nick Harris, but they failed to punch the ball in each time. In fact, Cal's two touchdowns came on long drives in the last two minutes of each half.

The Bears were handicapped by a bad game on the part of the receivers. Quarterback Kyle Boller was off-target on a few occasions, but the wideouts had trouble hanging on to the ball when they got their hands on it.

Moreover, the running game must improve to get the offense going.

"We didn't miss a lot of (blocking) assignments - our timing and efficiency wasn't good," Holmoe said. "That's why we'd get four or five (yards) instead of eight or 12. That makes a difference over a long game - we never popped a long run."

Cal will be helped in that department by the return of senior center Reed Diehl. He returns after suffering a nerve palsy against Utah, but guard Brandon Ludwig will be out for four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. Robert Truhitte will start in Ludwig's place.


In addition to Diehl, Cal welcomes back receiver Chad Heydorff, who missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, and linebacker Calvin Hosey, who has been out with a injured foot. Holmoe plans to limit Heydorff's reps. . . Holmoe said sophomore Bert Watts will make his first collegiate start at strong safety. . . Senior cornerback Chidi Iwuoma bruised his ribs against Illinois and will not return kickoffs. James Bethea and Joseph Echema will handle kickoff duties, while Iwuoma may return punts. . . Besides their two running backs, Bulldogs center Rodney Michael is questionable for tomorrow's game (ankle).


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