With Oklahoma State falling at home to then unranked Houston and Ohio State dropping a close one to USC, the Bears moved up two spots in the polls (tied for No. 7 in USA Today, No. 8 AP). But few teams ranked in the top 10 are playing as well as the Bears have through two games.
Granted Maryland may not be as good as first thought after needing overtime to escape FCS opponent James Madison last Saturday. And while Eastern Washington is very good for an FCS team, the Eagles are still an FCS team. Nonetheless, Cal ranks first in the Pac-10 and third nationally in points scored (55 ppg), Florida and Cincinnati rank first and second, respectively. Both have played on FBS and FCS team as well.
Cal head coach Jeff Tedford has led a high-scoring offense during his eight years at Berkeley, but the consecutive 50-point games in victories over Maryland (52-13) and EWU (59-7) mark the first time Cal has done so since 1973 (9/29/73, 51-6 over Army, 10/6/73, 54-49 over Washington). The 111 points the Bears have amassed in the first two games is the most in the opening two games of a season since 1991 (128 pts).
The offense will be expected to continue its 524-yard average against a Minnesota team that has struggled in its first two games. The Gophers needed overtime to defeat Syracuse two weeks ago, and a fourth quarter Nate Triplett 52-yard fumble return for touchdown in last week's 20-13 win versus Air Force. (note: Triplett was named Nagurski Player of the week after recording a career-high 17 tackles and the aforementioned fumble recovery against AFA.)
But winning on the road is something Cal needs to prove it can do this season, regardless of the opponent, especially if the Rose Bowl is the goal.
"I don't know what our record on the road was last year," Kevin Riley said at Tuesday's media press conference. "It definitely has to improve. If we're going to be talking about Rose Bowl, at all, we got to win pretty much all the games on the road. We just got to be ready, just prepare as best as possible."
Preseason, back-to-back road games at Minnesota and at Oregon seemed fearsome. Now, the Gophers lack the offensive punch to match Cal's that is exceedingly better than what was expected in fall camp. If the pedestrian Minnesota offense can score no more than 20 points in its first two games against the Orange and Falcons, the chance of outscoring the Bears on Saturday is highly unlikely.
"Last year, we were a lot more inexperienced on offense," said Riley. "We kind of know what to do going into [our first road game]."
Defensively, the Gophers will have trouble slowing down the Bears' offensive weapons. The only way Cal loses this game is if the Bears beat themselves, which is not out of the question.
Dating back to Tedford's first year in the program, Cal has lost to teams it has expected to beat. From dropping a 23-21 contest to unranked Air Force at home in 2002 after beating No. 15 Michigan State on the road the week prior to being embarrassed on national TV last season at Maryland, in a 35-27 loss, a week after the Terps lost at non-BCS Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee.
Under Tedford, Cal is 4-1 in road games in other time zones that have started before noon PT. Cal was 4-0 until losing at Maryland last season with wins coming at Michigan State (2002), Illinois (2003), Air Force (2004), and Colorado State (2007). But only the MSU, Illinois, and Maryland games kicked off at 9 a.m. PT.
Regardless of Minnesota's early season performance, this Saturday's game will be a monumental contest.
"It's going to be a loud stadium, which will be good for the upcoming season – first test on the road," said Riley. "We do a good job in practice preparing for noise…just got to prepare every way possible."
With a 9 a.m. PT kickoff, the Gophers will be geared up for the first ESPN nationally televised game at their brand new on campus TCF Bank Stadium, but will the Bears?
"We'll be ready for [Minnesota]," said Riley. "I have no question about that, especially after last year going to the East Coast and coming out flat, and playing a bad game overall.
"[On the road], you don't have the crowd to bring you up. You got to go with each other as a team, and when good plays happen, you got to rile around each other. Got to continue to make plays, stay focused all game, can't let bad things happen because you don't have a crowd there to bring you back up."
A number of Cal players said the early start at Maryland didn't affect them as much as the heat and humidity did. It is not expected to be too hot in Minneapolis this Saturday but the weather may still play a factor. There is a 10% chance of rain in the forecast for the contest.
If it rains, the Bears will the put the ball in the hands of the nation's sixth ranked rushing offense led by Heisman hopeful Jahvid Best. Minnesota has struggled running the ball, averaging a paltry 110 yards per game this year, but has had more trouble stopping it.
The Gophers allowed 261 yards rushing to Air Force last week. Cal can certainly exceed that as the Bears average just seven yards shy of 300 per game.
Saturday's contest also presents the first real opportunity for Best to impress East Coast Heisman voters. A noon ET kickoff means his highlights, or lack of, will be viewed continually on the wave of networks well into early Sunday morning.
But if you ask Best, highlights are not important. Wins are!
Win or lose at Minneapolis, it doesn't affect Cal's chances of playing in Pasadena on January 1, 2010. But if this team is different, a loss on Saturday is certainly unacceptable.
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