Cal's Landmark Road Trip

Oakland Tribune

AST LANSING, Mich. -- The masses began fleeing Spartan Stadium as if it was on fire, and Joe Igber couldn't suppress a dazed smile. 

"It was surreal," Cal's elusive senior tailback said of the exodus that began just seconds into the fourth quarter of Saturday afternoon's matchup of unbeatens at Michigan State. "It was the other side of the coin."'

The Bears, tortured by years of watching their own dismal crowds wander away prematurely, couldn't help but embrace the irony of the wholesale departure of the faithful long before the clock ran out on a stunning 46-22 upset of the 15th-ranked Spartans.

"Can't say as I blame them," MSU coach Bobby Williams said of the fleeing fans. "I would have been right there with there with them if I didn't have a contract."

"The first two weeks, people were saying `They didn't play anybody,' '' said first-year Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who has directed what will likely now be recognized as one of the most compelling major college turn-arounds of the young season season. "This proves we can play with the big boys."

The decisive, comprehensive, nationally televised victory ended Cal's 27-game regular-season road losing streak against Top 15 teams dating back to 1974. It also made a prophet of Tedford, who invoked the mantra that quickly became a war-cry last week as the Bears prepared for the first road trip of his administration: "Seventy-four thousand disappointed fans.''

The Spartans (2-1) never had a prayer. The 3-0 Bears, seizing the early momentum that carried them to blowout wins over Baylor and New Mexico State, exploited four MSU first-half turnovers in building a 25-0 intermission advantage.

But the coup de grace took place just past the midway point of the third quarter, when Cal answered back-to-back Michigan State touchdowns out of the locker room with a nine-play, 69-yard scoring drive - fueled by Igber and fellow tailback Terrell Williams - that ended when senior quarterback Kyle Boller snuck over the goal line from 2 yards out with 2:05 remaining in the period.

``They very easily could have folded in the second half when they came out and scored two quick touchdowns,'' Tedford said of his team. ``But they didn't. When that happened, I was looking around on the sidelines to see what the mood was. It wasn't any different.'' 

Seven seconds later, the Bears collected their sixth interception of 2002 - 75 percent of their total from all of last season - when nose tackle Daniel Nwangwu diverted a Jeff Smoker pass into the arms of junior cornerback James Bethea at MSU's 33-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Igber, going into motion and lining up as a wide receiver, converted a screen over the middle into a 23-yard touchdown. 

"They scored 14 quick points, and I didn't know if we were going to unravel or do what we did,'' said Igber, who crept within three yards of fifth place on Cal's all-time rushing list with a 21-carry, 108-yard performance. "Coach (Tedford) said, `It's time to go into a foxhole.' And that's exactly what we did.'' 

Just 13 seconds into the fourth quarter, Cal owned a commanding 39-14 lead. The turnstiles at Spartan Stadium began rotating like propeller blades. 

"They put quotes in the paper that we were a pathetic Pac-10 team,'' said senior wide receiver LaShaun Ward, who set up the longest field goal of senior Mark-Christian Jensen's career (51 yards) with a 56-yard free-kick return, flipped a 14-yard TD pass to Boller on an end-around and scored the Bears' final points on a 54-yard reception. "To see fans leaving in the third quarter felt great. At long last, the shoe was on the other foot.'' 

The Bears, with the same central cast that went 1-10 last year, continued to repudiate their dismal history under Tom Holmoe on every front.   

** A defense that surrendered a school-record 431 points a year ago twice denied the Spartans at the doorstep in the opening half, contributing two points to boot. Minutes after Matt Nixon wriggled his arm from beneath the weight of Spartan fullback Mark Goebel to corral Dawan Moss' fumbled pitch five yards from the goal line, the historically inconsistent Spartans blew another prime opportunity. A first-and-goal on the 2 became a third-and-goal from the 18, thanks to the biggest sack of senior Jamaal Cherry's career. That's when Bethea grabbed the first of his two interceptions, stepping in front of a poorly aimed Smoker pass intended for preseason All-America receiver Charles Rogers late in the first quarter. Moments later, MSU right guard William Whitticker cost his team a safety when he was penalized for holding Nwangwu in the end zone.

"We're not getting down when it's first-and-goal,'' Nixon said. "If you're playing hard and know what you're doing, the big plays are going to come.''

** Special teams, horrible a year ago, have bordered on spectacular thus far. Jemeel Powell - the Pac-10's leading punt returner in 2000 but a special-teams spectator last season - turned in Cal's longest punt return (90 yards) in 43 years to open the scoring with 8:28 left in the opening period. Before the half was through, Jensen had kicked three field goals. Two of them, including a 32-yarder as time expired in the half, were set up by fumble recoveries courtesy of the kickoff coverage unit.

** The offense, bland as bologna under Holmoe, continued to dazzle. Ward threw two passes on end-arounds, including the one that ended with Boller bullying his way into the end zone for a 22-0 lead with 19 second left in the half. Boller added two TD passes with yet another steady performance, completing 19 of 33 for 232 yards while tossing his first interception of the season.

"I hope people are ready to watch the Cal Bears,'' said Boller of Saturday's date with Air Force in Berkeley, where attendance for the first two games reflected a program coming off the worse season in its history. 

Tedford, who has played his with the coolness of a seasoned gambler, didn't veer from his M.O. despite a victory that could very well steer the beleaguered program into the national rankings.

"I don't think we need to be surprised or giddy about winning,'' Tedford said. ``That's the attitude we've been trying to install from Day One. When the clock ran out, I didn't see any surprise in our faces.''