Thursday, September 15, 2005

Good thoughts on the Illini

Illini hope Cal's fortunes will trickle down their wayBy

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The residue of a disastrous season lingered when Jeff Tedford accepted the task of cleaning up a sagging football program at California in 2002. The first-year coach immediately generated excitement by coaching the Bears to a pair of season-opening wins. But traveling halfway across the country for a subsequent meeting with No. 15 Michigan State figured to offer a dose of reality. Instead, Cal continued its resurgence with a 46-22 win, and the Bears have yet to slow down. Four years into Tedford's tenure in Berkeley, Calif., Cal is 27-13 and has become a threat to USC's Pac-10 dominance. Illinois hopes to repeat that formula this weekend. The Illini have some confidence with two wins for coach Ron Zook as they head west to face No. 15 California on Saturday.

The Bears were 1-10 the season before Tedford arrived and 8-25 in the previous three years. The Illini were 3-8 before Zook was hired and 9-26 the previous three years. "I do see some similarities there," Tedford said. "I was thinking about that: a new coach, you go 2-0 and then go on the road to play a top 20 team. We're going to have to play our best to not let that happen because they are playing well." But can Zook match Tedford, who went 7-5 in his first year? Can quarterback Tim Brasic perform like Kyle Boller? Could the Illini become bowl-worthy just like that?

Zook was blunt in saying the Illini are not necessarily ready to face a team the caliber of California, which won its first two games by a combined score of 97-20. Nor is he ready to predict as quick a turnaround after wins over Rutgers and San Jose State. "We feel like we have made some strides," Zook said. "In the spring and summer, one of the concerns I had was changing the mind-set. We always talk about how winning is a habit, but unfortunately, so is losing. How do you continually press and force and push them to believe? ... I have to believe that some of it is getting through." Tedford did inherit some exceptional talent from predecessor Tom Holmoe. Boller was on campus, as were the players who led the team in rushing, touchdown receptions and sacks in Tedford's first season.

The Bears got off to a fast start and continued to win despite the likelihood that they wouldn't be able to play in a bowl because of previous NCAA sanctions. They beat bowl-bound Washington, UCLA and Arizona State in 2002, but their NCAA appeal to play in a bowl was denied. "After going 1-10 the year before, the guys were just very eager to have success, bowl game or no bowl game," Tedford said. "When we couldn't go, our last game against Stanford was our bowl game." Illinois has seen both sides of the Cal program. In 2001, the Illini pounded the Bears 44-17 in Berkeley on their way to the Sugar Bowl. In 2003, Cal edged Illinois 31-24 in Champaign as the programs went different directions.

"I remember when they came into our place and beat us in that close game," Illinois offensive tackle JJ Simmons said. "You could see them go up and us go down. You can definitely see a program like that get better, and it helps us knowing that we can do it, too. If they can do it, we can do it." Cal's rise has been among the most impressive in college football.

Last year, the Bears threatened to win a national championship. However, a six-point loss to eventual champ Southern California knocked the Bears out of the Bowl Championship Series. Texas made a late run to overtake Cal in the BCS standings and went to the Rose Bowl. Although the Bears were No. 5 in the final BCS standings, Utah received the final BCS bowl berth because of a rules technicality. So, Cal will try again. Getting there would involve beating USC, which has won two of their last three meetings - 23-17 in 2004 and 30-28 in 2002. Cal won 34-31 in three overtimes in 2003. "We've played them fairly well in the past, but there's no question they're an elite program," Tedford said. "If we reach our full potential, maybe. But they're still the elite program in the West." 314-340-8232


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