BERKELEY — Excitement is high, scoring is endless and enthusiasm is up.

Two weeks into his first season at Cal, Sonny Dykes is lighting up the scoreboard and re-engaging the fan base. His profile, along with that of Cal football, is rising among West Coast observers.

Here comes the first real chance for the Golden Bears to reintroduce themselves to the highest levels of college football, to recast their national perception and perhaps become immediately relevant.

It's as simple as standing up to mighty Ohio State when the fourth-ranked Buckeyes visit Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The game is televised on prime time in the East, with Fox TV's distinctively animated Gus Johnson describing what should be quite the thrill ride.

Cal Bears quarterback Jared Goff (16), offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and head coach Sonny Dykes watch the game from the sideline against the Portland
Cal Bears quarterback Jared Goff (16), offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and head coach Sonny Dykes watch the game from the sideline against the Portland State Vikings in the second half of a football game at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Even as Dykes on Tuesday made a half-hearted attempt to sell some unadulterated bunk, he most assuredly knows otherwise.

"All the games are really the same,'' he said in response to a question about the magnitude of this matchup.

Mere seconds later, the coach acknowledged the truth, that a prime-time game against a prominent opponent always — always — registers greater significance. They create lasting images, impact team self-esteem and, to be sure, influence recruits.

"Certainly, when you play against a team that's as highly regarded as Ohio State, you do see it as an opportunity,'' Dykes said. "A challenge, but an opportunity as well.''

A Cal victory, no matter how it is achieved, would send a brand new fleet of overcrowded bandwagons rolling about the land.


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A close loss likely would further belief that Dykes is the right guy for Cal and, to the national audience, explain the increased excitement and enthusiasm in Berkeley.

A blowout loss, though, would be humiliating and potentially disastrous for Cal's immediate future.

Seven recruits visited last weekend, according to Dykes. Cal escaped with a 37-30 win over lightly regarded Portland State. It may not hurt recruiting, but it didn't help much.

This weekend, Dykes said, as many as 150 recruits are expected. Freedom High running back Joe Mixon, widely considered among the 10 best prep football players in America, is expected to be among them. At least five players are scheduled to make their official visits.

"I don't blame them for wanting to come and watch a game, see what the atmosphere is like,'' Dykes said. "They said they wanted to come. We kind of said `OK.' ''

High school boys tend to be impressionable. They also tend to be affected by several specific factors, most of which are related to image. They want to feel love. They gravitate toward excitement, allow themselves to wonder and visualize themselves in that uniform, in that stadium.

Few elements are more disenchanting for a recruit than visiting a school and seeing it stripped of its football dignity. Imagine, for example, listening as USC fans booed coach Lane Kiffin off the field last week in Los Angeles after his sluggish Trojans were upset by Washington State.

By contrast, few events are more seductive than taking a visit when that school pulls off a seismic upset before a large and boisterous crowd, sending shock waves through the sport. Sometimes, for some recruits, one game tilts the balance.

Is there any doubt a recruit interested in Stanford — but perhaps uncertain about its football bona fides — would intensify his interest after Jim Harbaugh led the Cardinal to an emphatic victory at USC in 2009?

After an opening game that started at 10:35 p.m. in the East and then a game against Portland State, this in a practical way is Cal's debut under Dykes. And he is standing on potentially pivotal ground.

His offense, led by freshman quarterback Jared Goff, is drawing raves even without much of a running game. His defense is being dissected — by opponents as well as observers.

An impression is there to be made.

The Golden Bears under former coach Jeff Tedford made a few brief stays on college football's list of exalted, including 10-win seasons in 2004 and 2006. Yet no single moment was more satisfying than their triple-overtime win over USC in 2003, which created in a neat package: a lasting image, a boost in self-esteem and a lure for recruits.

Cal Bears’ Brendan Bigelow (5) is tackled by Portland State Vikings’ Nryant Long (94) in the second half of a football game at Memorial
Cal Bears' Brendan Bigelow (5) is tackled by Portland State Vikings' Nryant Long (94) in the second half of a football game at Memorial Coliseum in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

This likely will be Cal's most-viewed game of the season. That makes it potentially the most important.

The Golden Bears need not win on Saturday; they certainly are not expected to. They do, however, need to look as if they are well-coached and primed for improvement.

Nothing in college sport is more important than recruiting. Nothing in recruiting is more important than creating or altering impressions, generating a perception or an image — than keeping excitement and enthusiasm on a high.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.