It's early October, and the Pacific 10 football season is barely under way. However, unusual significance has been attached to today's game between UCLA and California at the Rose Bowl.
There is a sort of crusading fervor in much of the Bay Area, where the Bears, after years of residency in the lower echelon of the conference, are regarded as a championship-contending team.
The turnaround in the Cal program began last year as Coach Bruce Snyder's team finished with a 7-4-1 record and a victory over Wyoming in the Copper Bowl.
Now, the Bears have set their sights on a higher postseason goal--and UCLA is regarded as a key game.
"This game is where we can really set ourselves apart from the old Cal team," wide receiver Brian Treggs said.
Last season, the Bears established their legitimacy by ending an 18-game losing streak to UCLA with a 38-31 victory at Berkeley. They also tied USC, 31-31, at the Coliseum.
UCLA is trying to regain what it believes is its rightful place among the top teams in the conference after two losing seasons. So far, UCLA has been reasonably successful, defeating Brigham Young and San Diego State and losing to unbeaten Tennessee.
Even though there is evidence that Cal has improved, the early schedule hasn't given the Bears the opportunity to prove it completely. They routed Pacific, everybody's doormat, 86-24, and followed with a 42-18 victory over Purdue, a lower division Big Ten team. Cal beat Arizona, 23-21, on a late touchdown drive in its last game, on Sept. 21 in Tucson. Arizona is not regarded as a top-caliber Pac-10 team.
Still, Cal ranks 18th nationally.
"It's hard not walking around like a big man now," Treggs told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Cal's resurgence is mainly because of its offense.
Russell White, the former Crespi High star, is being promoted as a potential Heisman Trophy winner. He has gained 10 pounds since last season and, at 210, combines speed and power. He is the leading rusher in the Pac-10, averaging 116 yards.
"He's a big, strong running back who is very deceptive," UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said.
Mike Pawlawski, the brash California quarterback, said White is running harder this season, putting his head down at the end of a play.
Pawlawski, from Troy High in Fullerton, is the emotional leader of the Bears. It has been said that he has a linebacker's mentality and will challenge almost anyone.
Pawlawski leads the nation in passing efficiency. He has completed 71% of his passes for 702 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions.
Asked to comment on his image, Pawlawski said: "I don't think it's bad to be considered to be tough at the position I play. I don't think anybody wants to be led by a guy who is going to cry about every call and has to pull up his skirt."
Pawlawski throws mainly to Treggs, a former Carson High star, who has caught 12 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns. Sean Dawkins, with eight catches for 144 yards and three touchdowns, and tight end Brent Woodall, with nine catches for 123 yards, also figure in the passing scheme.
Treggs is the most brash of the Bears, even more than Pawlawski. "Catching the football and winning are fine, but taunting is what I really like to do," he has said.
In any event, these are heady days for the Bears, who haven't played in the Rose Bowl game since the 1958 season.
"My thinking is that we haven't played our best game yet, so the best is ahead of us," Snyder said.
UCLA is a five-point favorite. . . . Cal has eight starters back on offense but only only four on defense. . . . Bear Coach Bruce Snyder, on offensive tackle Troy Auzenne, who is 6 feet 7 and 285 pounds: "I can't believe there's a better left tackle in the country."
UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said Shawn Wills will start at tailback today. In Donahue's estimation, Wills had a slightly better overall game than tailbacks Kevin Williams and Ricky Davis did in a 37-12 victory over San Diego State on Sept. 26. "No one has really stepped in and clearly won the position," Donahue said. Donahue acknowledges that Williams is ahead of the others on sheer explosiveness and big-play capability. He is UCLA's leading ground-gainer, averaging 6.7 yards. However, Donahue added: "He has not displayed the necessary qualities you have to display to be the starting tailback. He has not been able to play when a game is on the line, nor has he been able to play as long as a starting tailback needs to be able to play. He hasn't clearly won the position, but I wish someone would." . . . Williams had to come out of the last two games because of leg cramps and fatigue. So it's still tailback by committee for now.
Cal will confront UCLA with an eight-man front. Donahue said it's a hard defense to run against because the Bears plug so many gaps. It's also a defense that can be burned if Tommy Maddox makes the correct call at the line of scrimmage. . . . Cal fullback Greg Zomalt has a knee injury and is not expected to play.