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THE TICKETS were gone by July, 72,000 folks convinced this would be the most unforgettable game in a most memorable season.

And now they'd like to forget it.

While No. 24 Cal and its fans entering Memorial Stadium on Saturday still were trying to buy into the grand possibilities, including a Pac-10 championship, seventh-ranked USC brought an ice-cold dose of reality.

Scoring on three of their first four possessions, the Trojans went on to a 30-3 romp that reminded the Golden Bears of the vast gap between where they are and where they thought they'd be.

Where they are is completely out of the Top 25 despite being ranked No. 6 only nine days ago.

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Where they are is without a legitimate candidate for the Heisman Trophy — despite running back Jahvid Best being among the front-runners only two weeks ago.

Where they are is 0-2 in the Pac-10, burdened by an unwanted share of the cellar, with losses to Oregon and USC, by a combined 72-6.

Where they are today is on the precipice, scrambling to recover and wondering if they can.

"There is no way in the world that we are folding our tent," coach Jeff Tedford vowed.

"We definitely had a lot of expectations," safety Brett Johnson said. "We just kind of haven't been able to put it together these past two games."


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If only the effects of the past nine days were limited to the loss two games, the first of which, to Oregon, crushed the highest of hopes while this one hijacked any pretense of collective ego.

But the ramifications are so much broader, more even than seeing another season of promise rapidly shattered, devolving into another year of heartbreak for Cal and its most devoted followers.

Coming immediately after a 42-3 beat down at Eugene, this game served notice that Cal suddenly is a team in trouble, with a coaching staff facing increasing challenges and a quarterback searching for his game.

Junior Kevin Riley completed 15 of 40 passes for 199 yards, throwing one interception, a toss into the end zone to bring a devastating end to what had been a fairly impressive opening drive.

What was disturbing about Riley's performance, though, was the frequency with which he missed open receivers. He missed low, missed far, missed wide. And more than a few of those in the crowd expressed their displeasure.

The simple explanation for the absence of offense the past two weeks is Riley's inability to step up against defenses stacked to contain Best (47 yards, 14 carries). Even the quarterback conceded as much, saying he's working with too much talent to accept back-to-back games without a touchdown.

Which brings the problem back into the lap of Tedford, whose brain is wired for offense and whose reputation is that of a man who develops passers. He stands by Riley, for now.

Moreover, Tedford stands by his team.

"I'm never going to get into screaming and yelling at the guys," Tedford said, trying to maintain order in his program while responding to some of the restless Old Blues who have requested that he become more vocally demanding.

Still, these past two weeks are, without question, an undeniable setback for the program. From a Top-10 national ranking to the bottom of the Pac-10 speaks in most uncomplimentary terms.

For all Tedford has done to resurrect football in Berkeley, his task of lifting Cal to a point where it can reasonably compete with USC remains very much undone. It may never get done, no matter how opulent the facilities might be after all the digging and building and polishing near the stadium. After all, Cal has been chasing the likes of USC for three generations.

To be sure, though, Tedford's long-term mission is not about to get any easier.

Among the 72,000 in attendance were a number of prep athletes being recruited by Cal — which means some of them also might be considering USC or Oregon — or UCLA or Washington.

The impressionable teenager who knows what happened last week and saw what happened Saturday might find Cal football a bit less to his liking.

All the more if he considers the stadium was full, with longtime fans pregnant with expectations of something more and getting what they have seen much too often over the past half century.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.