PHOENIX — Virginia Tech seems a bit disappointed to be in the Insight Bowl. The California Bears hardly could be more thrilled. The Hokies have grown to expect better than this mid-level bowl played Friday night in a baseball park.

"We may be disappointed not playing in a BCS bowl game, but we are playing in a great bowl game," said Hokies' coach Frank Beamer, who added that he won't know until the game begins whether his players will approach the contest with the intensity they might bring to a bigger bowl.

Six games into the season, Virginia Tech was unbeaten and No. 3 in the country. Even after a loss at West Virginia, the Hokies' beat Miami to climb to No. 5.

Then things fell apart with losses to Pittsburgh, Boston College and Virginia. The lone win down the stretch came in overtime against lowly Temple.

"The reason we lost four out of the last six is because we weren't playing together," Hokies linebacker Vegas Robinson said. "Everybody was out there doing more than they were supposed to do. Guys were out of position. I feel like we're calmed down now. We're level headed. We're ready to get back at this thing."

Cal won four of its last five to finish 7-6 and earn its first bowl bid since 1996. Tedford inherited a 1-10 team a year ago and led the Bears to 7-5. The last year of probation for long-ago NCAA infractions kept the team out of a bowl game.

Despite having just nine returning starters, Cal finished tied for third in the Pac-10, and was the only team to beat conference champion and No. 1-ranked USC — 34-31 in triple-overtime on Sept. 27.

"Last year we had the best turnaround in college football, and this year the key fact is that we're in a bowl game," Tedford said.

The game could be a shootout, with Cal's high-powered offense going against an offense on Virginia Tech (8-4) that features running back Kevin Jones. He will forgo his senior year of eligibility in favor of the NFL.

"I did what I felt was best for me," Jones said. "I hate to leave my teammates and my coaches. That's the only thing that made it a tough decision."

Jones set school season records for yards rushing (1,495) and 100-yard games (eight). The Bears say they're prepared.

"He's a great back, but it's nothing we haven't seen before in Stephen Jackson and Rueben Sprouls," Cal linebacker Joe Maningo said. "He has Stephen Jackson's strength and Rueben Sprouls' speed. It makes it kind of difficult for us to focus on one characteristic."

California almost certainly will be without its biggest offensive threat, wide receiver Geoff McArthur, who broke his forearm in practice on Sunday. McArthur was second to Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald this season in receiving yards at 115.7 per game. He had 85 catches for a school record 1,504 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Tedford must count on his other receivers in an offensive system that produced a mind-boggling 729 yards in a 54-7 victory over Washington on Nov. 15.

"Someone will step up in that spot and will have a great opportunity,"' Tedford said. "We have split the reps evenly so everybody is ready to go."

Cal is as balanced as any team could be, producing 254.7 yards per game through the air and a Pac-10 leading 170.8 on the ground, behind running back Adimchinobe Echemandu, who earned all-conference honors with 1,161 yards rushing this season.

"Stopping the run and the pass — they have them both," Robinson said. "It's going to be a challenge for us, but I feel like we're very capable of going out there and beating them." Bowl

California (7-6) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4)

at Phoenix

Today, 7 p.m.