Cal trailed USC 10-0 last weekend, but it was early.
However, beginning with the last play of the first quarter, star tailback Jahvid Best did not touch the ball on the Bears' next seven offensive plays. Cal managed one first down during those two possessions, which were sandwiched around a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Trojans' Damian Williams.
Once considered a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, Best has fallen off the national map the past two weeks as opposing defenses dare Cal to beat them through the air. The Bears' inconsistent passing attack has failed to do the job, leaving one of the most talented players in college football virtually helpless in the backfield.
"With players like Jahvid and Shane (Vereen) in the backfield, defenses are going to say, 'We have to stop this,'" Cal offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "When an opponent does that, they leave other opportunities that you have to try to exploit. We haven't had the success exploiting those opportunities."
Best had just 14 carries against the Trojans, and only eight in the first half when the game was still relatively competitive. In each of the past two weeks against Oregon and USC, the Bears have been forced to throw in an attempt to erase big deficits.
Go by the flow
Cal is wrestling with ways to break Best free. The Bears want to take what opposing defenses give them but still need to get the ball in Best's hands. Of Best's first four carries against the Trojans, two went for good gains (8 and 6 yards) while the others netted minus-3 yards and no gain. Best rushed for 3 yards on his fifth carry of the game, and that's when it looked as though the Bears started to go away from him.
The question Cal's offensive coaches face is when to abandon the running game and try to make opponents pay for stacking the line of scrimmage.
"It's just a feel on how the game is going," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I don't think there's any magic indicator. You just have to go by what the flow is; what they are doing to you on defense."
There's no question Best might find more running room once the Bears demonstrate they can hurt opposing teams through the air. Cal did that at times against USC, most notably on the game's opening possession when quarterback Kevin Riley completed two passes of over 20 yards each to move the Bears inside the USC 10. But the drive ended when Riley was intercepted in the end zone.
Low pass percentage
Riley also was 5-for-8 for 54 yards during an impressive two-minute drill near the end of the first half, but that possession ended with a missed field goal. The Bears had receivers open from time to time during other parts of the game, but Riley was victimized by inaccuracy.
"Kevin is a highly motivated, driven individual, and he's trying to do everything he can to be successful," Ludwig said. "When you put too much on yourself, things like that happen and things go against you. We look for great improvement from Kevin. He wants to do his part and more."
Riley ended up completing just 15 of 40 passes for 199 yards against USC and connected on just 38 percent of his throws during the past two games. That came after ranking sixth nationally in passing efficiency through the first three games of the season. Riley was 12-for-31 for 123 yards in the previous game at Oregon but was hurt by poor pass protection.
"When you miss open guys more than a few times a game, that can't happen," Riley said. "I just have to be a little more patient and make it a catchable ball. I feel fine. It feels good coming out of my hand. I'm just aiming it a little too much. I'm still throwing well and making all the reads. I'm just missing too many receivers."