Cal picking up where they left off with 2-0 start

By Derek Barichello

No. 15 California lost 26 players from last year’s 10-2 squad that came one win away from competing for a national championship, but with that said, not much has changed in Berkeley.

The Golden Bears are off to another 2-0 start defeating Sacramento State 41-3 and Washington 56-17 and are looking prime to compete with No. 1 USC for a Pac-10 title.

“I remember watching their bowl game when I first got this job and thinking, ‘Holy smokes, I can see why these guys are upset about not playing in the BCS,'” said Illini head coach Ron Zook. “They were supposed to lose 26 guys, but it looks like they’ve reloaded.”

California came into this fall with big shoes to fill. Last season, the Bears offense was led by Heisman-candidate Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, who threw for 2,566 yards and connected on 24 touchdown passes and runningback J.J. Arrington, who rushed for 2,018 yards. Both were selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

Leading revamped California thus far has been junior quarterback Joe Ayoob and sophomore running back Marshawn Lynch, who is listed eighth on ESPN.com’s Heisman Trophy watch list, and so far they have not missed a beat.

Ayoob, who is playing for the injured Nate Longshore, put up Rodgers-like numbers against Washington, completing 17 of 27 passes for 271 yards and four touchdowns.

“Evidently, he has come in, and losing their starter didn’t have a big effect on them,” Zook said. “They play extremely well. They play with great effort, and I think that is one of the reasons why they have had so much success.”

California head coach Jeff Tedford said the key for Ayoob was maturing into his new role.

“He used to be kind of a happy-go-lucky guy, kind of stood in the back,” Tedford said. “Every now and then you would turn and see him goofing off with guys or whatever. You don’t see that anymore. There is a whole different maturity with him now as far as focus. I was really, really pleased with the way he handled the huddle last week.”

Lynch has gained 197 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry thus far. He netted only 46 yards last week, leaving the game early for an injured finger. In his place, tailback Marcus O’Keith continued where Lynch left off with 103 yards on six carries.

“They have a stable full of running backs,” Zook said.

Leading the way for that running game is an offensive line that weighs in from left to right at 360, 305, 305, 340, and 360 pounds. The line has provided the offense with a 100-yard rusher in 14 consecutive games.

The Bears running game is a cause of concern for the Illini defense, who have had mixed results against the run, giving up 175 on the ground to Rutgers and only 15 to San Jose State.

If the Illini are able to stop the run, California has a talented core of receivers to turn to, led by Robert Jordan, who has 11 catches for 192 yards on the season.

“They are going to be the best receivers we’ve seen to date,” Zook said.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears are just as strong. They are led by senior safety Donnie McCleskey, rated the No. 8 safety in the nation by The Sporting News, and junior middle linebacker Desmond Bishop.

Tedford said his defense sets the tone for the team.

“When a fullback is coming down hill to block a linebacker in a hole, who’s going to win that match up?” Tedford said. “Those are the types of things that can set the tone. Guys like Desmond (Bishop), when those guys are coming through there in the open, he is going to win most of those match-ups.”

Illini receiver DaJuan Warren said he expects California to switch from man-to-man to zone throughout the game and show a lot of zone blitzes.

Illini offensive lineman JJ Simmons said California’s defense has a blue-collar attitude.

“They get off the ball really well and they use technique really well,” Simmons said. “I compare them to Rutgers’ Ryan Neill – they never quit. They come out low and they are aggressive. They like to get in the backfield and penetrate. It will be a great test for us.”