It wasn't the Rose Bowl, but it was a start.
The No. 20 California Golden Bears, whose chance to get to Pasadena had veered off course in two of the past three seasons, made the most of their postseason opportunity Thursday with a 45-10 victory over No. 21 Texas A&M; in the Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium.
In claiming their second 10-win season in two years, the Bears (10-3) rushed for 241 yards and five touchdowns and shut out the Aggies (9-4) in the second half. It was an impressive performance by a Cal team that looked to be among the nation's elite at midseason before staggering through November with two losses in its last three games.
"We're not where we want to be yet," Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said. "We had high expectations this year and there were a couple disappointments in there, but I thought our team really bounced back strong."
Cal's was the first bowl victory for a Pacific 10 Conference team this season. Oregon lost to Brigham Young, 38-8, in the Las Vegas Bowl; UCLA lost to Florida State, 44-27, in the Emerald Bowl; and Arizona State gave up 38 points to Hawaii in the second half of a 41-24 loss in the Hawaii Bowl.
Oregon State plays Missouri today in the Sun Bowl, and USC faces Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Monday.
In 2004, the Bears were in line to play in the Rose Bowl before being leapfrogged by Texas in the final Bowl Championship Series standings. The Bears, then ranked fourth, were disappointed to be playing in the Holiday Bowl and lost to No. 23 Texas Tech.
"We felt slighted the last time we were here because we felt a computer kept us out of it," said Tedford, who called this year's trip to San Diego a "privilege."
This time, his team played as if it were happy to be here. Justin Forsett rushed for 124 yards in just eight carries, and Marshawn Lynch, the Pac-10 offensive player of the year, added 111 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Nate Longshore ran for one touchdown and threw for another. He wasn't sacked and was seldom hurried.
"With no rush all night and with receivers getting open, it was pretty easy," said Longshore, who completed 19 of 24 passes for 235 yards, with an interception. "Just having guys like that in the background and with me having the ability to run, you could definitely see the play-action working. You could see that they were geared towards stopping the run. So that's only going to open up the passing lanes."
The Aggies, who came into the game averaging 401.4 yards and 29.3 points a game, scored on their opening drive but after that did not find a rhythm. Jorvorskie Lane, a 274-pound tailback who was second in the nation with 19 touchdowns, did not score and was limited to 36 yards in seven carries.
Among the memorable moments in the game were a punt for zero yards by Texas A&M;'s Justin Brantly and a trick play by Cal for a touchdown. With Longshore split out wide at receiver, Lynch took a direct snap at the Aggies' two and charged into the end zone.
"Cal played a great game," Texas A&M; Coach Dennis Franchione said. "We were not up to the task. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball."