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A popular Cal infomercial states that the school has a "long tradition of untraditional excellence." For the football team, going from a near winless campaign to a near Rose Bowl berth in three years will certainly get you that moniker.
This article will go over the highlights and low-lights of Cal Bears football over the first decade in the new millennium, and is the first in a series of articles that will include top players, games, and more.
Enjoy, and as always, feel free to contribute your own thoughts.
Best Regular Season Game: 34-31 win vs. USC (2003)
It was a contest that ended the No. 3 Trojans' 11-game winning streak, kept them out of the National Championship, set off Cal's meteoric rise into the national consciousness, and rekindled a rivalry.
The Bears jumped out to a 21-7 lead in Berkeley, but had to overcome Matt Leinart, the loss of their starting quarterback, and two blocked field goals before eventually prevailing in triple overtime .
Adimchinobe Echimandu became the first running back in 16 contests to crack the century mark against USC, while back-up signal caller Reggie Robertson passed for 109 yards and a score in relief of the injured Aaron Rodgers.
Worst Regular Season Game: 31-28 loss vs. Oregon State (2007)
The national face-plant against Tennessee in 2006 is a close runner-up, but sometimes the heart-breakers sting more than the blowouts. Following an LSU loss on Oct. 13, all the Bears had to do to earn a No. 1 national ranking the next morning was beat Oregon State.
They nearly won in dramatic fashion, rallying from a 10 point deficit with about two minutes left to play—before Kevin Riley's infamous decision to scramble instead of throw the ball away with 14 seconds left. The Bears were unable to get a field goal off, as time expired after he was tackled. Cal suffered the mother of all hangovers from the loss, dropping five of the team's last six regular season games.
Best Bowl Game: 2003 Insight Bowl vs. Virginia Tech
It may very well have gotten the honor just for being Cal's first bowl victory in 10 years, but the Bears and Hokies put on a show like no other. In a contest that saw both quarterbacks near 400 yards passing, both offenses combined for over 1,000 total yards, and both squads overcome two-touchdown deficits. Tyler Frederickson's game-winning field goal capped off a wild 52-49 victory.
Best Team: 2004 Squad (10-2)
2004 may have ended in disappointment—with a BCS snub at the hands of Texas and a Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech—but it remains one of the program's memorable campaigns in recent memory. The Cal squad may not have had the star power of the 2006 conference co-champions, but the team's feat was arguably more remarkable. They reached double-digit wins just three years after a 1-10 regular season, and took eventual champion USC down to the wire in Los Angeles.
On offense, the Bears, who finished No. 9 in the final poll, were led by a prolific passer in Aaron Rodgers, the nation's leading rusher in J.J. Arrington, and three future pros on the offensive line. Cal also fielded arguably its best defense of the decade—a unit that allowed over 16 points just three times, while holding the Trojan offensive machine to its lowest scoring output of the season (23).
Worst Team: 2001 Squad (1-10)
Simply put, 2001 was not a happy time for Cal fans. The Bears did not win a single home game and managed just 201 points in 2001, in large part due to quarterback Kyle Boller's third consecutive season with a completion percentage below 50. A victory over Rutgers in the season finale saved Cal football from the shame of a winless season, but nevertheless, the campaign marked a low point for the program.
Best Coach: Jeff Tedford
Any coach would likely have beaten out Tedford's predecessor, but the former Oregon offensive coordinator ushered a Renaissance of sorts in Berkeley. Since taking over following the 2001 season, ha has led Cal to eight consecutive winning seasons (after four combined over the previous two decades), seven consecutive bowl games (counting the Poinsettia Bowl on Wednesday), and perhaps most importantly, a 7-1 record over arch-rival Stanford after the Bears had previously lost seven straight.
Tedford's 67 wins at Cal currently tie him for the most in school history.
Runner up: Ron Gould, Running Backs Coach
In his 13th year at Cal, the Bears' longest tenured assistant has turned the school into a running back factory. There's a great feature that talks about him more eloquently than I ever could, but here's all you need to know:
-Seven straight seasons with a 1,000 yard rusher since 2002 (including falling a yard short of having two in one backfield in 2005).
-Six different backs have accomplished the feat in that span, and three of them are currently on NFL rosters.
Worst Coach: Tom Holmoe
Even if he wasn't the only other coach to choose from, it's hard to take many positives out of his maligned stint in Berkeley, which included a 16-39 record (9-31 in conference play) over five bowl-less seasons, and a winless record against the Cardinal.
Anemic on the field, the team also faced trouble off the field. Cal was placed on a five-year probation, forfeited four victories from 1999, was banned from the postseason in 2002, and lost nine-scholarships due to academic violations that occurred during Holmoe's tenure.
Best Single-Season Performance: J.J. Arrington, 2004
Arrington takes this spot with his nation-leading and school-record 2,018 yards on the ground and 15 scores—all in just 12 games. Perhaps most impressive was Arrington's consistency—he was the only runner in Division I to gain at least 100 yards in every contest.
Check out the names he surpassed for the rushing title—Darren Sproles, Ronnie Brown, Marion Barber, Adrian Peterson, Cedric Benson, and DeAngelo Williams.
Worst Single-Season Performance: Joe Ayoob, 2005
Despite making just 15 of 30 field goals in 2003, Tyler Frederickson can still be remembered for booting game-winners against USC and Virginia Tech. It's hard to imagine Cal fans having many fond memories of Ayoob, who was woefully innacurate (49.2 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns to 14 picks) in relief of the injured Nate Longshore before beng benched for Steve Levy for the Big Game.
Best Single-Game Performance: Aaron Rodgers vs. USC, 2004
Jahvid Best's record setting 311 yard day against Washington in 2008 was electric, but it featured neither the stakes nor a quality opponent.
Both were present on October 9, 2004, as Cal faced the eventual National Champion Trojans, whose defense boasted four All-Americans. In a matchup of top-10 squads, Rodgers stole the show—connecting on his first 23 passes to tie an NCAA record, and finished 29-of-34 with a ridiculous 85.3 completion percentage. Though he ultimately needed one more completion in the endzone during the game's final minute, his performance earns a distinct place in program lore.
Worst Single-Game Performance: Joe Ayoob vs. Sacramento State, 2005
Most fan bases aren't concerned after their team posts a 41-3 win; nor do they ever boo during the contest. Those fans were likely not in attendance at Memorial Stadium on September 3, 2005, when the juco transfer failed to complete a single pass (going 0-for-10) in relief of starter Nate Longshore, who suffered a season-ending leg injury. One could hear a collective prayer for the return of Aaron Rodgers, who chose the NFL over a final season in Berkeley.
Best Recruiting Class: 2003
This class, which brought the key players of the decade's best team, edges a deep 2005 crop. 2003 featured Rodgers and Arrington, as well as two productive tight ends in Craig Stevens and Garrett Cross. But it is also well known defense: the class saw the arrival of four future NFL players (Matt Giordano, Thomas Decoud, Daymeion Hughes, Brandon Mebane), the team's single-season sack record holder (Ryan Riddle), and productive contributers in Greg van Hoesen and Matt Malele.
Runner up: 2005 This class saw the arrival of three different leading receivers for the Bears (DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Cameron Morrah) and three of the team's most accomplished linebackers from this decade (Desmond Bishop, Zack Follett, and Anthony Felder).
Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu and corner Syd'Quan Thompson both enjoyed terrific four-year careers and are future pros, while Marcus Ezeff, Eddie Young, and Brett Johnson were all productive defensive starters.
Unlikeliest Hero: Marcus Ezeff
Cal's sophomore safety, who had committed an ill-advised personal foul penalty earlier in the game, helped seal the Bears' first victory at Autzen Stadium since 1897 by tackling Oregon's Cameron Colvin at the goal line and knocking the ball out late in the fourth quarter . After a lengthy review, the wild play ended in a touchback, and the ensuing win helped catapult the Bears into the top five in the country.
Unlikeliest Villain: Mack Brown
Typically, Pete Carroll is the high-profile coach who has drawn the most ire from the Bears faithful this decade. Yet in the same season that the Trojans escaped with a narrow victory over Cal at the Coliseum, the Blue and Gold found a new enemy.
Thanks to their coach's impassioned lobbying, Texas, which was ranked below the No. 4 Bears in the polls heading into the final weekend, leapfrogged them for a Rose Bowl berth after Cal's less-than-stellar 26-16 win over Southern Mississippi (a game that was unfortunately moved from September to the end of the season due to a hurricane). Don't expect Bears fans to forget the incident when the two teams meet in 2015.
Best Play: Terrell Williams' Touchdown Pass to David Gray vs. Baylor (Aug. 31, 2002)
One couldn't think of a better way to start off a new era of Cal football, as the Bears perfectly executed a 71-yard double pass from Kyle Boller to Terrell Williams to David Gray. The trickery parted the flood gates to a 70-22 season opening victory, which featured Cal's most explosive offensive output (460 total yards) in nearly a decade.
Worst Play: Kevin Riley vs. Oregon State (Oct. 13, 2007)
You can go ahead and watch it here , because I sure as heck can't bring myself to describe it again.