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Bears Early to Rise Against Illini

September 21, 2003|From Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The early hour didn't bother Aaron Rodgers or Geoff McArthur on Saturday, when the California quarterback and wide receiver connected 10 times for 155 yards and a touchdown in the Golden Bears' 34-21 victory over Illinois.

The game's 11:10 kickoff meant Cal was playing at 9 a.m. California time, something Illinois had hoped to use to its advantage.

The Bears (2-3) did appear a bit sleepy at first, with the Illini marching 68 yards in 14 plays on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead on Jon Beutjer's 10-yard pass to E.B. Halsey.

But after the Bears got the ball back, Rodgers woke his teammates up with a third-and-21 completion to McArthur and then hit him again for 19 yards on the next play.

"I think we jumped on them early and we took the life out of them," said Rodgers, who made his first start for the Bears, taking over from Reggie Robertson. "That's what we wanted to do. You could just tell the DBs were playing off more. They didn't want to come up and bump and they weren't tackling well as a group."

Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said his team needed the victory after close losses the last two weeks to Colorado State and Utah.

"It would have hurt bad to have a third one," he said. "This really gives our guys a boost."

Rodgers completed 20 of 37 passes for 263 yards.

The third-and-21 conversion was the first of several big plays for Cal. The biggest was Vincent Strang's 68-yard punt return for a touchdown with 1:22 remaining in the half.

After catching the ball at the Cal 32, Strang ran into a wall of Illini defenders as he tried the right side. But he reversed direction and then sprinted down the sideline for the score, which put the Bears ahead, 21-7, at halftime.

"It was just absolutely amazing," Strang said. "Going into the half and being able to pick everybody up like that, it is a big momentum builder."

And a momentum killer for Illinois (1-3).

"That definitely deflated us," Illini Coach Ron Turner said. "We punted the ball and had two guys there to make the play and we didn't make it. That play really deflated us a lot."

Rodgers and McArthur connected six times in the second quarter for 90 yards.

"I think they were a little flustered," McArthur said.

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