California’s Marshawn Lynch took a handoff, made two subtle cuts and burst into the secondary. BYU safety Spencer White dived and missed him. Cougar cornerback Nate Soelberg chased him and grabbed his waist, then slid off as Lynch completed a 35-yard touchdown run.
As Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII vs. Denver, the BYU defenders who faced him in the 2005 Las Vegas Bowl keep reliving the experience of trying to tackle him. Oh, yes. They remember. And as the years go by, and they watch what Lynch is doing against NFL defensive players, their own self-image improves.
"I don’t feel too bad," said former BYU linebacker Markell Staffieri.
The ex-Cougars do have stories to tell. "People always ask who you played against," said White, who names Lynch and Cal receiver DeSean Jackson among his top opponents.
Soelberg, who injured his back on that attempted tackle, likes to say Lynch is "the last football player I ever touched."
Everything that Lynch would become in the NFL was displayed on that December night in Las Vegas, where Cal took a 35-28 victory. The sophomore carried the ball 24 times for 194 yards and three touchdowns, showing his vision, speed and power.
Knowing what we know now, this qualified as a vintage Lynch performance. He got stronger in the second half. He turned a couple of routine plays into TD sprints, just as he did against New Orleans and San Francisco in the NFC playoffs. And he delivered one of those classic "Beast Mode" runs in the fourth quarter, dragging a pack of Cougars for the last 8 yards.
Even the play-by-play breakdown followed Lynch’s current trend. Five times, BYU stopped him for no gain or a loss. On the other 19 carries, he gained 199 yards — with 10 runs going for 9 or more yards.
"If we didn’t get him in the backfield, he was going to be tough to bring down," Staffieri said.
Vince Feula, a defensive lineman, can claim to have tackled Lynch twice for losses. BYU linebackers Cameron Jensen and Justin Luettgerodt made several stops, but the defensive backs had to do a lot of work. White was involved in four tackles of Lynch, yet none of those plays resonates with him.
"With my personality," he said, "the one I remember the most is the one I missed. … I came up as fast as I could. I don’t think I even got a hand on him."
White’s diving attempt and Soelberg’s desperate effort — "I was just holding on for dear life, hoping someone else would come and tackle him," he said — could not prevent Lynch’s 35-yard touchdown early in the third quarter. The Bears built a 35-14 lead and resisted a BYU comeback led by quarterback John Beck.
The defeat left BYU with a 6-6 record in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season as head coach. The Cougars had lost to Utah and finished behind TCU in the Mountain West, but the Las Vegas Bowl eagerly grabbed them as they became bowl-eligible for the first time in four seasons. Cal finished 8-4 after going 4-4 and tying for fourth place in the Pac-10 with an offense led by Justin Forsett, Lynch and Jackson, a freshman who caught two TD passes against BYU.
The Bears were strong up front, and coach Jeff Tedford’s scheme was geared toward blocking BYU’s linebackers. During the game, Staffieri kept asking Jensen, "Why aren’t you free?"
Sometime later, Cal center Marvin Phillip told Jensen the game plan was to single-block the linemen and double-team the linebackers. "That explains a lot," Staffieri said.
In any case, the Cougars have followed Lynch’s career with interest. He played one more season for Cal before entering the NFL draft and going to Buffalo, then Seattle. Staffieri often has picked him for his fantasy football team. Soelberg, who trains young athletes to run faster, can cite personal experience with Lynch.
"Power, speed and the will to not go down," Soelberg said. "You’ve got to have that in the NFL now."
Lynch has it all, as the NFL has discovered. The Cougars can say they saw this coming.
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