Bears' Holiday Bowl win exorcises some demons

SAN DIEGO -- Don't let the flashy gold-and-blue uniforms fool you. The demeanor of the Cal Bears on Thursday night was more about black and blue.

The Bears pounded Texas A&M, outhitting the Aggies from the opening kickoff en route to an impressive and very emotional 45-10 victory in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.

As has often been the case during the Jeff Tedford era at Cal, the Bears (10-3) piled up gaudy offensive numbers, passing for 235 yards and running for 241. But Thursday's performance was more about this team making a statement, proving -- perhaps to themselves as much as the rest of the college football world -- that they had the grit to go with all the glitz.

The latter has never been a question for dynamic Cal offenses under Tedford. This Bear bunch, led by electrifying wide receiver/kick returner DeSean Jackson and tailback Marshawn Lynch, can go showtime with anyone. But the former had become the big knock on Cal and the element that many believe had been keeping them from taking that next step toward legitimate heavyweight status.

A notoriously bruising team like Texas A&M (9-4) provided the ideal litmus test. The Bears broke tackles, swarmed to the football and punished A&M receivers. Their O-line was knocking the Aggies' front off the ball with a mean streak. By late in the third quarter, it didn't seem like A&M wanted the game anywhere near as much as Cal did.

With the Bears up 14-10, Cal's senior offensive tackle Andrew Cameron gave a short, impassioned pep talk during halftime, echoing comments he had made to his teammates throughout the three weeks leading up to the game: "Forget all that Texas stuff. We are more physical than they are. Keep taking it to them. Keep hitting them and those guys will break down."

Cameron was right. The Bears outgained the Aggies 253-146 in the second half -- and even those numbers don't accurately show Cal's dominance.

"You could see it out there. They had their hands on their hips," said Cameron. "They were really tired."

The Bears only drew more energy from the emotional swing as the game wore on. With 3:40 remaining and the Bears up 38-10, Cal running back coach Ron Gould was the first Bear staffer to get a Gatorade bath. A few seconds later, just as reserve linebacker Chris Purtz was decking an A&M kick returner, one of the defensive coaches got doused as the Bears sideline howled. Three plays later, Eddie Young picked off an Aggie pass and almost scored. As Young trotted off the field, he was mobbed by his teammates who met him near the near the end zone. One Cal player tried to usher Young and his celebrating teammates off the field. "(Bleep) that!" junior free safety Thomas DeCoud shouted. "Get a penalty. We don't care now."

You can forgive the Bears exuberance. They were letting out a whole bunch of stuff that had been stewing inside them for a very long time.

"The whole time we were here all everybody wanted to talk about was (A&M running back) Jorvorskie Lane and how great Texas football is," said Cal defensive end Abu Ma'afala. "Nobody said anything about us."

"It was all Texas football, Cameron said. "They think they invented football, but we're some big kids and we can hit hard too."

Cameron's emotional well reaches down even further than the hyping of this game, though.

"Two years ago I was on this field when we lost to Texas Tech," he said. "That was a horrible, horrible feeling for me. We had thought we should've been playing in a BCS bowl, but then we lost, and I really think for us, that stigma was very hard to get rid of."

In hopes of exorcising some of those demons, Cameron said the past three weeks the offensive line "practiced harder than we did all year." Cameron also spoke to many of the underclassmen about how crippling a bowl loss can be to a program. "All offseason, people will write about it," he told them. "It affects recruiting and it affects your rankings. You never want to have that horrible feeling."

The rout also provided a needed boost for Pac-10 pride, which really has taken a beating in the last week with Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA all having lost by an average margin of more than 21 points. But really, this was about building up the Bear pride that had taken an even bigger beating, particularly in Cal's season-opening blowout loss at Tennessee. That game left the Bears wide open to scrutiny. After all, in the last couple of seasons, the most noteworthy Cal performance was its close loss at USC two seasons ago. Instead, they had been blasted for getting shredded by unheralded Texas Tech in the same Qualcomm Stadium two years ago.

Of course, beating the No. 21 Aggies won't answer all the critics, but it sure was a great way to jump into the offseason.

"Nobody thought we could do this," said DeCoud. "Nobody expected this. The Pac-10 was 0-3, but we proved our worth tonight."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine.