The day before wide receiver Marvin Jones orally committed to Cal, the Bears missed out on a chance to become the No. 1 team in the country by losing to Oregon State 31-28.
That was in 2007, and Jones had a bunch of scholarship offers. But he liked what he saw of the program at Cal and wanted to be part of it. Cal was 5-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation before the loss to the Beavers. The Bears had spent the better part of the previous three-and-a-half seasons consistently in the national rankings and twice made serious runs at a Pac-10 championship, tying USC for the title in 2006.
Jones has just completed his junior season, and the Bears have gone just 24-22 since that 5-0 start in 2007, including 22-22 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. This will mark the fourth straight season Cal has finished outside the top 25.
Has something changed since that October 2007 evening at Memorial Stadium, when Jones was in Berkeley taking his official visit? Does something need to change now that Cal just completed its first losing season (5-7) in nine years?
"We just have to execute. That's the only thing I can say," said Jones, who was Cal's leading receiver for the second straight season with 50 catches for 765 yards and four touchdowns. "It's the same thing, just different guys."
The loss to Oregon State began an epic collapse to the remainder of that season. The Bears lost six of their final seven games before beating Air Force in
Talent wasn't the problem. Cal had six players from that team taken in the NFL draft the following spring.
An argument can be made that Cal hasn't fully recovered from that 2-6 finish in 2007. The Bears were a solid 9-4 in 2008, but their recruiting class that year wasn't as highly regarded as those of previous seasons. The same could be said about their incoming freshmen in 2009.
The Bears began the 2009 season ranked No. 12 in the country, and although they registered a couple quality wins, they went just 8-5, with all five losses being lopsided.
That brings us to this year. Cal entered the season with low expectations that turned out to be accurate.
"I'm not sure anything really needs to change," said outgoing senior linebacker Mike Mohamed. "We've had great teams over the years. I don't know what the answer is. We have plenty of talent, plenty of good players out there. We just have to find a way to get it done. Hopefully they turn it around next year."
With a huge question mark at quarterback, a suspect group of receivers and tailback Shane Vereen possibly heading for the NFL draft, Cal's offense, which ranks just seventh in the Pac-10 (333.9 yards per game), is a colossal unknown heading into next year. The Bears return several key players from what was mostly an effective defense this season.
A handful of Cal juniors, who presumably will assume leadership roles throughout the offseason, said they embrace the assignment of getting the program back in the right direction.
"I definitely feel like I'm ready to put it all on my shoulders," safety Sean Cattouse said. "I know there are a lot of guys that feel the same way. Everything I do on and off the field, I just want to be a complete leader, a complete football player for this team."
Quarterback Brock Mansion, whose starting spot is far from guaranteed after guiding the Bears to a 1-3 record over the final four games while filling in for injured starter Kevin Riley: "I'm going to lead with my actions. I'm not going to do too much talking because that doesn't get you very far. I'm just going to take it upon myself to do what it takes to move us to the next level."