LAS VEGAS — For the California football team, the best news of all is that there's no controversy surrounding their bowl game this year.

The Golden Bears had a miserable bowl experience last season when they suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Holiday Bowl. It was a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise stellar season in Berkeley.

Cal (7-4) is seeking a measure of redemption when they take on BYU (6-5) in Thursday's Las Vegas Bowl.

A year ago, many observers projected Cal to be Rose Bowl-bound after the Bears finished the regular season with a 10-1 record. Their only loss came in the form of a respectable 23-17 setback to eventual national champion Southern California. They boasted star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who would go on to become a first-round NFL draft pick while coach Jeff Tedford was a finalist for national coach of the year honors.

It was Cal's best season since 1950 and the Bears were the only team in the country to rank among the nation's top six in scoring offense and scoring defense.

But Texas coach Mack Brown engaged in some effective politicking prior to the Bowl Championship Series selections. Brown's Longhorns leapfrogged the Bears in the final BCS standings and received a trip to the Rose Bowl.

That sent a disappointed Cal squad to the Holiday Bowl, where it came out flat and was crushed by Texas Tech, 45-21. All in all, the Bears had an awful week in San Diego.

"There was a lot of media negativity," Tedford recalled. "We were asked every day, 'Are you over the BCS thing?' It just never went away."

The Bears are looking for a different result in 2005.

"We don't want a letdown like last year," said senior linebacker Ryan Foltz. "Everyone was disappointed. We expected to go to a BCS bowl. That doesn't explain why we didn't play well."

"Our players won't have the same distractions this year," Tedford said. "We don't have that kind of attention going into this bowl game."

Indeed, there are no such controversies this time. Cal, which is making its third straight bowl appearance, is happy about landing in Las Vegas.

"We're real excited," Tedford said.

Early on this season, it appeared the Bears — the youngest team in the Pac-10 — were on their way to another impressive campaign as they opened with five straight victories, albeit against less-than-impressive opponents (Sacramento State, Washington, Illinois, New Mexico State and Arizona). Along the way, they climbed into the Top 10 rankings.

But then Cal lost four of its last six games and dropped out of the polls. The slide began with a 47-40 loss at UCLA, then there was a 23-20 defeat at home to Oregon State. The Bears came back the next week to outscore Washington State, 42-38, before getting pummeled by top-ranked USC, 35-10. Cal finished the regular season with a 27-3 victory over arch-rival Stanford.

Despite the struggles during the second half of the season, Tedford likes what he's seen from his team.

"I feel we're on the right track. I'm very proud of what this coaching staff and these guys have accomplished," he said. "Sure, we are not 10-1, but we have been competitive in every game we've played, besides the USC game. We are probably only five or six plays away from losing only one game this year."

The Bears' defense will see how much it learned from last year's debacle against Texas Tech, since BYU runs a similar offense to the Red Raiders. In fact, the Cougars' offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, was Texas Tech's offensive line coach in last year's Holiday Bowl. Cal's defense surrendered 597 yards of total offense to the Red Raiders in that contest.

For the most part, Cal's defense has been solid. The Bears have limited opponents to 20.5 points per game and 351.6 yards of total offense. They have recorded 80 tackles-for-loss, including 31 sacks.

Offensively, Cal is run-oriented with a strong one-two punch in the backfield. Bears' tailback Marshawn Lynch rushed for 1,052 yards and seven touchdowns while Justin Forsett gained 962 yards and scored six TDs. Forsett averages 7.8 yards per carry and Lynch averages 6.1 yards per carry.

"He's elusive and he's physical," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Lynch. "When he gets the ball, he can cut back, change direction and do anything necessary to get yardage. We'll have to be disciplined and assignment-sound to contain him. They have good athletes. Their tailback is likely the best athlete on their team and the core of their offense. They'd like to run the football as many times as possible. They have an exceptional offensive line. We expect them to start the game using their strength."

Cal is down to its third starting quarterback this season. Steve Levy, who came to Berkeley as a quarterback but was switched to fullback last season, is back at QB and coming off his first career start in the win over Stanford. He passed for 125 yards and one touchdown against the Cardinal.

Nate Longshore began the season as the starter but suffered a serious ankle injury in the season-opener and hasn't played since. His backup, Joe Ayoob, became the starter for the next nine games and experienced both ups and downs. Cal lost four of the final five games it played with Ayoob as a starter.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com