Twenty-nine carries into the heaviest lifting he's ever known as a collegian, Shane Vereen was as pristine as a blade of rubberized turf.
That's his version of the truth, and he's sticking to it.
"It was different than normal," was as far from the script as Vereen would venture Saturday night, after helping Cal to a grinding 24-16 victory over Arizona. "But mentally and physically I was prepared. Coach G (Ron Gould, Cal's running backs coach) did a good job during the week getting me ready."
The special preparation was in order because Cal came into Saturday's game without its best offensive chess piece, tailback Jahvid Best. Still recovering from the heart-stopping fall he took in the Bears' previous game, Best's role against Arizona was strictly inspirational. He observed the pregame coin flip. He walked the home sideline, wearing his familiar No. 4.
But there was no way he was going to play just seven days after suffering a severe concussion. That meant Vereen would have to work a double shift — taking the 15.7 carries Best had averaged through nine games, plus the 8.3 he himself had averaged, plus a half-dozen more for good measure.
With 1:30 to play and Cal clinging to a two-point lead, it was looking like a pretty good plan. Vereen, with 98 yards rushing, had been a reasonable facsimile of a sure thing in a game in which nothing had come easily to either side. The Bears had just taken over on downs at their own 39.
Then Vereen took the ball for his 30th carry and a pretty good plan became a work of genius. He blew through the left side of the line and flew downfield as if he'd just rolled out of bed. His 61-yard touchdown run put Cal up by eight.
"We'd been running (to the) strong side all game," he said. "They finally flowed (in that direction) and the backside was wide open."
It had all the earmarks of a coup de gras until a botched snap foiled the extra point attempt. Instead of leading by an unassailable nine points with 1:21 to play, the lead remained a hypothetically assailable eight.
"My blood pressure went way up," said coach Jeff Tedford, likely understating his state of mind by an order of magnitude.
Then again, it seemed an oddly fitting turn of events given a) the game was the visual equivalent of a hacksaw screeching through rusted metal, and b) the long-goodbye nature of seniors day. Forced to make one last stop, Cal's defense did, sending coaches and players laughing and back-slapping off the field as if they'd had it in the bag all the way.
"We talked all week about the seniors' last opportunity to go down the tunnel and how we wanted to come back to that locker room," Tedford said. "Those guys have done a lot for this program. To see them go out this way at home is very deserving."
That, too, was oddly fitting. Even before his injury, there was no guarantee Best would return next season for his senior year at Cal. Now it seems almost unfathomable, with a potential windfall awaiting him at the professional level. Thus, Saturday's game was likely a sneak peak at next year's Cal offense, with Kevin Riley still at quarterback, most of the offensive line returning, and Vereen graduating from a complementary role to the team's alpha tailback.
His game — he finished with 159 yards on 30 carries — stands even larger in that context. Because despite his brave talk, Vereen moved gingerly in and out of the postgame interview room like a guy bound for a quiet night of ice bags and Ibuprofen.
"He's been banged up," Tedford said. "Sometimes he doesn't practice. He came up big. He ran hard and broke a lot of tackles. Shane was a work horse today."
He broke what seemed like two dozen tackles on one play, an end-around which was supposed to result in his second attempted pass as a collegian. Faced with a stiff rush, he somehow wiggled free, reversed field and gained nine years, making use of a superb block in which Riley wiped out two defenders.
He also took a handful of direct snaps in the Wildcat formation and caught a pass for 10 yards. It was the full dinner show, and the encore this Saturday at Stanford figures to be just as grueling and even more challenging.
Or, as Vereen will come to know it, the new normal.
Contact Gary Peterson at email@example.com.