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December 22, 2009SAN DIEGO--Tomorrow is all about numbers.
It will be the third straight game in which the Cal football team will face a ranked opponent: No. 23 Utah (9-3). It will be the eighth straight bowl game for the Bears, who will try for their fifth straight win -- all under head coach Jeff Tedford's clipboard. But the number that will be most conspicuous, if only for its absence, will be No. 4.
While Cal tailback Jahvid Best will be in uniform -- at least in-jersey -- for the Bears' Pointsettia Bowl matchup against the Utes, he will not play in what many believe will be the last time Cal fans see him in blue and gold.
"Jahvid's very, very bummed," said sophomore running back Shane Vereen. "He wants nothing more than to come out on the field with us. What we do tomorrow, it's going to be for him."
Vereen and Best have long been very close. Since high school, the two have been closely linked, so much so that mere hundredths of seconds separated the two when they ran against one another in state track finals during their senior year of high school. When both came to Cal, it was as the Dynamic Duo of Shane the Train and Jahvid the Jet. So, when asked if he had any insight into what Best's decision may be regarding his future with the Bears, Vereen smiled knowingly, but before letting the cat out of the bag, he pulled back.
"We'll see. You never know," Vereen said. "He still hasn't decided. But it's his decision."
But that, as Vereen said, is all in the future.
"Next year's so far away," Vereen said. "I'm excited about it, but at the same time, I just can't wait to get out there on the field tomorrow."
Though taking the field without an explosive playmaker like Best may seem like a disadvantage for Cal (8-4), but not when you consider his backup Vereen. The Train has kept on chugging in Best's absence, amassing 88 carries for 444 yards and three scores on the ground while also accounting for five catches for 45 yards in his past three starts.
"They're very similar," said senior left tackle Mike Tepper. "Jahvid's very explosive, and so is Shane. It doesn't matter which one I block for. They're both going to get the job done very well."
Redshirt freshman Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson will serve as Vereen's backup on Wednesday, a role he is more than prepared for.
"I've been the unheard person during the games, because I'm the one in practice doing all of the plays during the week while people rest their injuries," Deboskie-Johnson said. "It's normal. It's protocol. It's all the same. When I get in (the game), you got to know your opponent, and I know my opponent."
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back has been preparing so thoroughly, in fact, that he's even ready for the Utes physical pass defense.
"A lot of those plays on the highlight film (shown at the luncheon) were defensive plays," said Deboskie-Johnson. "Their defensive line is amazing, so we just got to bring it. And then their corners, just like their whole defense, they're press guys. You don't see that much. You don't see defenses just pressing receivers (like they do)."
Deboskie-Johnson even let slip that the Bears have special plays designed to counteract Utah's bump-and-run, but stopped himself before spilling the beans completely.
"This is the first time we actually get to see it," Deboskie-Johnson said, "and that means that their corners have to be some (tough) people for them to be pressing, and I admire that."
The onus will be largely on the Cal offensive line Wednesday to establish the run early, thereby freeing up the passing lanes, something it failed to do in the Bears' season-finale loss at Washington.
"I think a lot of it was a combination of people making mistakes," said senior Mike Tepper. "I took a turn making a mistake, giving up a hit on (quarterback) Kevin (Riley). There were other protection issues. We all just took a turn and we didn't make too many positive plays."
How the line goes, so go the fortunes of the Bears offense. If Cal can establish the run early, which is a stable of Tedford's offensive strategy, then the passing game can to operate with a little breathing room.
In Cal's eight wins, the Bears have racked up an average of 228 yards on the ground, and allowed just 11 sacks and one hurry. In those eight games, Riley has a completion percentage of 61.7, and averages over 237 yards through the air.
In each of Cal's four losses, the Bears have rushed for less than 100 yards, and in those games, opposing defenses smashed through the line to tally seven quarterback hurries and 15 sacks. Riley's stats under that kind of pressure? 60-for-137 (43.8%) for an average of 184.3 yards.
"We have to protect the quarterback," Deboskie-Johnson said. "They're a great defense. We have to honor that, but at the end of the day, it's who wants it most, and we got to bring it. If we want to win, we've got to be the ones that want it the most."