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EVEN AT prestigious universities, "Nobel Prize! Nobel Prize!" isn't usually the chant of choice among rowdy football fans. But that was the congratulatory serenade that Cal physics professor George Smoot heard from the home student section at halftime of the Golden Bears' 45--24 victory over Oregon on Oct. 7. Four days earlier Smoot had won the Nobel Prize for physics for his research advancing the big bang theory of the universe's origins, a big bang far different from the one that shook the Bears' universe seven weeks ago: a 35--18 season-opening loss at Tennessee that blew their national reputation to bits.
Now it turns out that Cal's hope of earning a place among the country's elite teams wasn't irreparably shattered. The Bears, who were ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll but fell to No. 22 after the Tennessee loss, have played like a powerhouse ever since, with six straight one-sided victories, including a 21--3 drubbing of Washington State last Saturday. The embodiment of Cal's resurgence is quarterback Nate Longshore, a 6'5", 233-pound sophomore who has had a renaissance of his own. After throwing for only 85 yards and being pulled in the third quarter against Tennessee, Longshore has played as well as any quarterback in the nation, with a pair of 300-yard passing games and three games with four touchdown passes.
He and the rest of the Cal offense, which scored more than 40 points in each of the five games after the loss to Tennessee, weren't as prolific against Washington State. The Cougars limited Longshore to 17-of-31 passing for 176 yards and two interceptions. Nevertheless tailback Marshawn Lynch ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile the defense twice stopped Washington State on downs inside the Bears' 20-yard line, allowing Cal to coast to victory.
Longshore's struggles against Tennessee were understandable, considering his lack of experience. He broke his left ankle in the second quarter of his first college game, against Sacramento State last season, and missed the rest of the year. After the Bears' 42--17 victory over Minnesota in their second game this season, Longshore joked that his performance—he completed 22 of 31 passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns—was less satisfying than his mere survival. "I finally made it through a game," he said. "I'd never played the fourth quarter. It was exciting."
The Bears are glad to see Longshore back in good humor after the death of his father last spring. Todd Longshore was 49 when he suffered a pulmonary embolism in April. It's not surprising that Nate was able to bounce back after such a rough season opener; it was only a minor setback compared with the immeasurable loss he had already suffered, and his resiliency stood him well on the football field. "His best quality as a quarterback is his ability to put aside the things that go wrong and focus on what comes next," offensive tackle Mike Gibson said after the Washington State victory. "Today he threw an early interception, but the next time he came into the huddle he sounded just as confident as ever, like it never happened. The rest of the team picks up on that."
Although the winning streak has lifted Cal in the rankings, the Bears haven't had the most rigorous schedule. They've beaten only two teams that were ranked nationally at the time they played them: No. 11 Oregon and No. 22 Arizona State. Besides Washington State and Minnesota, Cal's other opponents have been Portland State, a Division I-AA school, and Oregon State.
The rest of Cal's schedule doesn't appear terribly taxing either, which means the Bears won't be able to fully atone for their first-game failure unless they beat No. 3 USC on the road on Nov. 18. It's likely that the winner will take the Pac-10 championship, a title that would at least send Cal to its first Rose Bowl since 1959. Given the way that unbeaten teams have been falling lately, even a berth in the national championship game isn't out of the question if Cal runs the table.
That dream seemed lost in the rubble at Tennessee last month, but not to the Bears. "Other people are realizing that this team is capable of doing some pretty great things," Longshore says, "but we knew it all along."