Cal quarterback Kevin Riley has heard a lot of criticism through the years, but it was nothing like what he heard from coach Jeff Tedford the night before the Bears' meeting with Arizona State on Saturday.
"Coach told us there was Cal alumni, Cal people questioning the team's heart," Riley said. "That's the biggest criticism you can have."
The Bears made Arizona State pay for a week of negativity that extended beyond the words of their coach, taking out their frustrations in a 50-17 romp in front of a smallish crowd of 51,599 at rainy Memorial Stadium. Cal's defense didn't allow a touchdown, and the Bears got big games from wide receiver Marvin Jones and tailback Shane Vereen to run away from the Sun Devils.
"It was a tough week," Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "We had a lot of people doubting us, a lot of criticism. It kind of fueled our fire. We just stayed hungry all week. We knew we had to come out and prove ourselves, show that we still have a lot of heart and that we will keep fighting."
Tedford was the recipient of most of last week's criticism after the Bears looked woefully unprepared in a 48-14 loss at USC. He inspired his team at its hotel in Emeryville on Friday night by discussing the doubt outsiders have in them. Tedford, never a big believer in negative motivation, said the Bears accomplished the difficult task of remaining positive during their preparation for the Sun Devils.
"It looked today by the crowd that some people have given up on us," Tedford said. "But I'm proud of our team that they didn't give up on themselves. It was about heart because that got questioned this week. There was nothing but negative all week long by outsiders. The only ones who believed were the ones in that locker room. I was really proud of them."
The USC loss not only raised questions about the quality of the 2010 Bears, it made Saturday's game pivotal for the rest of the season. With top-notch opponents such as Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford still on the schedule, Cal (4-3, 2-2 Pac-10) needed to beat Arizona State (3-4, 1-3) to remain competitive for a bowl berth.
"Being 3-4 and 1-3 in the Pac-10, you can't really do that," Riley said. "Then every game is a must-win. It still is a must-win."
Not only did Saturday's win give the Bears rosier prospects, it proved they are a better team than they demonstrated against the Trojans. That was especially true for the defense, which was having a dominant season until allowing 602 yards against USC.
Arizona State, which entered the day with the 15th-ranked passing offense in the country (299 yards per game), amassed just 177 yards through the air and had only 234 yards of total offense. Sun Devils quarterback Steven Threet was just 8 for 16 for 125 yards and two interceptions before leaving at halftime with a concussion. He was almost intercepted on the game's first play from scrimmage.
Arizona State scored touchdowns on a blocked punt and fumble recovery. Cal's defense has limited its opponents to one touchdown or fewer in five of seven games.
"The defense definitely stood up and rallied the whole game," Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "That's what it was all about. We harped on getting better from last week. We're going to keep pushing forward next week."
The Sun Devils (3-4, 1-3) scored a field goal on their first possession, but it was evident early it was going to be a long day for their offense.