BERKELEY -- It was a had-to-have victory for California, the Pacific 10 Conference and Western football civilization.
Or something like that.
On a summer Saturday night at Memorial Stadium that rivaled any Southeastern Conference game atmosphere -- here we go again with the comparisons -- No. 12 California exacted an almost desperate revenge for last season’s face-plant in Knoxville with a 45-31 win over No. 15 Tennessee in Hippieville.
“We’ve been carrying this for a year,” Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said of the burden.
The reality: Cal had no choice but to win if it wanted to keep its national credibility membership card. And what was good for Cal was good for the Pac-10, which found itself defending its honor after Louisiana State Coach Les Miles made disparaging preseason remarks about West Coast teams other than USC.
Expect the argument to spill, like a saloon fight, into Internet chat rooms.
Was Cal’s victory as convincing as Tennessee’s 35-18 win over the Golden Bears last year in Knoxville?
What about Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge having to play the game with a broken pinkie finger?
Well, maybe it was a factor, although Ainge did finish with a career-best 32 completions.
The bottom line is Cal needed Saturday more. Tennessee can recover from this and stay in national title contention because winning the SEC is always going to be viewed as better than winning the Pac-10, right?
It’s just the way it is.
Conversely, two season-opening losses in a row to Tennessee would have relegated Cal to the discard bin.
“It was important,” Tedford said.
Cal tried Saturday to dispel stereotypes about the Pac-10 being a finesse-first conference.
On the first series, linebacker Zach Follett made a jarring blindside hit on Ainge that dislodged the ball from the quarterback’s hand and led to a 44-yard touchdown return by teammate Worrell Williams.
Follett heard for a year how soft Cal was last season at Knoxville.
“They folded,” Follett said of the Vols. “In the third quarter, their offensive linemen were taking a knee. So I never want to hear that again.”
Cal showed flash, too, as DeSean Jackson officially launched his Heisman Trophy campaign when he returned a second-quarter punt 77 yards for a touchdown to put his team up, 21-14.
Cal was ready to start the victory party after quarterback Nate Longshore’s three-yard scoring pass to LaVelle Hawkins put the Bears up, 38-21, early in the second half.
But victory wasn’t safe yet.
Tennessee scored the next 10 points to cut the lead to seven and got the ball back early in the fourth, but Cal’s defense forced a three-and-out and punt.
The Bears then drove 70 yards in five plays and took a two-touchdown lead with 9:10 left on a 13-yard scoring run by Justin Forsett.
From the bureau of West Coast facts: Tennessee is 3-9-1 in games played in the Pacific time zone and 2-7-1 in games played in California.
As for the Pac-10/SEC debate?
Expect it to rage on.
Before the game, someone hired a plane to fly over Memorial Stadium with the trailing message: “SEC RULES, PAC 10 DROOLS.”
SEC people will say the Pac-10 is soft and Pac-10 people will offer up the first-quarter hit Follett put on Tennessee’s Ainge.
And SEC people will say it wasn’t a fumble just because the on-field ruling was upheld by a Pac-10 officiating crew that included a referee, Dan Antonietti, who was suspended last year in the Oklahoma-Oregon finish fiasco.
The conferences met Saturday night.
“They deserve a little payback,” Cal quarterback Nate Longshore said of the victory.
The conferences may meet again next January in the national title game.
“Cal’s a very fine football team,” Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer said.
And maybe not as soft as you thought?
“I heard a lot of comments,” Tedford said. “That they were a more physical conference than us. That they were more physical than us.
“I just hope that answers some of the questions.”