Stingy D propels Golden Bears to historic ranking

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A superb quarterback, a dominant rushing game and a wildly inventive offensive scheme can take a team only so far. California needed two fantastic games by its defense to reach its highest ranking in 52 years. The Golden Bears (6-1, 4-1 Pac-10) beat Arizona State 27-0 Saturday night to record consecutive shutouts for the first time since 1968. The next morning, they moved up three spots in the AP poll to No. 4 -- their highest rank since Oct. 20, 1952. Cal's remarkable three-year turnaround was led by coach Jeff Tedford's offense, which captured the nation's attention with high-scoring performances week after week. Tedford's club led the nation in total offense last week before dropping to fourth with 492.4 yards per game. But there's a new coaching star in Berkeley: Coordinator Bob Gregory's defense has carried the Bears to new heights. "We really have to give all the credit to our defense for this one, because our offense struggled," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who passed for just 165 yards and one touchdown against Arizona State. "We've got some injuries on offense, and it was great to see the D shutting them down." The Bears are 14th in the nation in total defense, allowing 282.2 yards per game. After shutting out Arizona 38-0 a week earlier, Cal clamped down on Andrew Walter and the Sun Devils, frustrating one of the West Coast's better teams. Tedford gives Gregory complete autonomy over the defense, and the unit struggled at times during the last two years while the coaches recruited players good enough to compete with the Pac-10's best. Now that Cal's roster is teeming with talent, Gregory has all the tools he needs. But Gregory, a former Washington State defensive back who still looks athletic enough to cover a wideout, has an extreme aversion to taking credit for his defense's accomplishments. He often seems to take praise of his game plan as an insult to his players. "It's all effort by the guys," Gregory said. "There are no geniuses in coaching, guys. It's all about good players playing their fannies off. ... When we got close (to a shutout), I could hear those guys telling each other, 'Keep it going, keep it going." Arizona State couldn't reach Cal territory in the first half, managing just 123 total yards. After falling behind 13-0, the Sun Devils were forced to take risks -- and backup cornerback Tim Mixon intercepted an ill-advised pass in the third quarter, returning it 58 yards for the score that started the blowout. The Bears didn't have a revolutionary game plan against Walter, who's most dangerous when he's allowed to sit in the pocket. Gregory blitzed cautiously, relying on his defensive line and linebackers to keep Walter uncomfortable. It worked: Cal held Walter to 238 yards passing while sacking him five times. "We had to get his feet moving, get him out on the run and get him out of his comfort zone," said defensive end Ryan Riddle, who got his team-leading eighth sack. "When he's thinking about who's coming to get him, he can't be as effective. That's what every team tries to do against him, but we did it." Gregory credits the defense's improvements to the return of nine players who were new starters last season. Their familiarity with Gregory's scheme was obvious when Cal held top-ranked Southern California to 205 yards last month -- but still lost 23-17, a result that still rankles the Bears. "It feels good to be where we are, but then there's that little itching in the back of your mind that we could have beat USC, and then where would we be?" Riddle asked. Riddle knew the defense had to play a superb game because of injuries to three of Cal's top four receivers. Seniors Jonathan Makonnen, Burl Toler and Chase Lyman all missed the game, leaving Rodgers struggling to find chemistry with double-covered senior Geoff McArthur and three freshmen. Arizona State could have avoided the shutout in the third quarter, but Jesse Ainsworth missed a 31-yard field goal. The Sun Devils got to the Cal 6 with 4½ minutes to play, but safety Matt Giordano wrapped up receiver Rudy Burgess at the 5 on fourth down. "When you get a shutout, it's a really special moment," Giordano said. "We had a little more fire this week. We wanted to prove that our defense is up to the level that we think we are. We had people doubting us, and you take that stuff to heart."