Cal spent the first three minutes of its showdown with USC on Saturday night making a convincing argument that last week's disaster in Oregon was the exception. Then the Bears spent the following 57 minutes showing that maybe it's the rule.
A promising opening drive ended with quarterback Kevin Riley's first interception of the season, and the Trojans dominated the rest of the way for a 30-3 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 71,799 at Memorial Stadium.
After a 3-0 start, No. 24 Cal has been thoroughly outplayed in back-to-back weeks. The Bears were embarrassed 42-3 on Sept. 26 in Oregon.
The Bears, who began the season surrounded by talk of a Pac-10 title and a possible Bowl Championship Series berth, now are surrounded by doubt. Cal is off to an 0-2 start in Pac-10 play (3-2 overall), a record no team has overcome to win the conference championship.
"Two straight losses is kind of tough, but I think we have the right group of guys to get the ship righted," Cal safety Brett Johnson said. "It's a long season. We still have plenty more Pac-10 games to play, and there's still a lot to get out of the season."
The Bears have had arguably their two toughest Pac-10 games to begin conference play, but they still face some challenging games ahead, including a road trip to UCLA after the upcoming bye week.
"I have confidence in these guys," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We're going to prepare well. I don't know what's going to happen against UCLA. All I know is I have a lot of confidence that we will prepare well and have good attitudes. There's a lot of football left to be played."
This marks the second time in three years Cal has started the season strongly and surged in the national rankings only to fall hard with a couple of losses. The Bears undoubtedly will fall out of the Associated Press top 25 today and are in ninth place in the Pac-10 standings.
In 2007, Cal began the year 5-0 and ascended to No. 2 in the national polls only to lose six of the next seven games, a skid that exposed the team's lack of chemistry and leadership. These Cal players are convinced there is no repeat in store.
"More than anything, we're a family now," Cal nose tackle Derrick Hill said. "That's one thing I can honestly say with all my heart is this team is a family. We don't want to make it like it was two years ago. We want to make sure we stop it right where it's at right now."
The Bears took the opening kick and quickly drove to USC's 6-yard line. But on third-and-goal, Riley tried to force a pass to wide receiver Marvin Jones, and it was easily picked off by All-American safety Taylor Mays. Six plays later, the Trojans had a 7-0 lead on a 38-yard touchdown run by running back Joe McKnight.
"That was definitely not the way you want to end a good drive like that, but we knew we could move the ball on them," Riley said. "We just have to find a way to put it in (the end zone)."
Cal moved the ball well at times but stalled at others. The Bears once again failed to make a team pay for stacking the box in an effort to stop star tailback Jahvid Best, who had just 47 yards on 14 carries. Riley misfired on several throws, completing just 15 of 40 passes for 199 yards.
The Bears gained just 285 yards of offense to USC's 457.
Cal gave up on the running game early on. Best had only eight carries in the first half, including back-to-back possessions where he didn't touch the ball at all.
When asked if he would have liked to have got the ball more, Best said: "Yes and no. I can't argue with the coach's decision. Whatever I get, I have to make do with."
Cal's defense gave up some big plays but tightened up in the red zone. The Bears allowed only two touchdowns, and one came late with the game already decided. USC scored one of its touchdowns on Damian Williams' 66-yard punt return.
Cal's offense now has failed to score a touchdown in back-to-back games, the first time that's happened since 1986. The Bears are off to an 0-2 conference start for the first time since 2001, Tom Holmoe's last season as the coach.
"Fortunately we're going into a bye week. It will give us a lot of time to reflect and look in the mirror and see what we need to do individually as well as a group to perform better," Johnson said. "We don't have the same guys we had on the '07 team. That team had a lot of different guys with different mentalities. This team has better personalities and guys who won't let this drive them down."
Oct. 17, at UCLA, TBA