A loss is a loss. Or as Cal senior wide receiver Marvin Jones said, "They all go into the books as an 'L.' "
But for the Golden Bears the past two seasons, that letter could stand for something else: Lopsided.
When Cal loses, it loses badly. Seven of its past 13 losses have come by 21 points or more. It's a distressing trend that began two seasons ago when the Bears were beaten on back-to-back weekends against Oregon and USC by the combined score of 72-6. Those debacles set in motion Cal's tumble from the ranks of college football's elite.
Now, the Bears must run the identical gauntlet, facing Oregon and USC in consecutive games. It starts Thursday in Eugene against the No. 9 Ducks. USC comes to AT&T Park the following Thursday.
Cal players say this team is better equipped mentally for the challenge and those ugly beat-downs are a thing of the past.
"We don't want to be remembered for winning some games, but getting blown out as well," senior linebacker D.J. Holt said. "I find it hard to believe that will happen to us this year. It shouldn't. We're a different team."
The Bears (3-1) are coming off a 31-23 loss at Washington two weeks ago that ended with Cal at the Washington 2. Holt described it as "heartbreaking," and yet there was an encouraging sign. Cal battled back despite trailing 21-10.
"In the past, when we were down on the scoreboard, you could tell that the team was down as well," senior linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "When we've been down this year, I didn't feel any of that negative energy. We stayed positive and convinced that we were going to find a way to win."
Cal has been a puzzle the past two seasons. Undeniably talented, the Bears' résumé includes some impressive victories. But they also have turned in some inexplicably poor efforts -- including losses by the embarrassing margins of 39, 34 and 32 points.
It has been enough to leave fans asking: Who are those guys and what did they do with the Cal team? Sometimes the players pondered the same thing.
"We have talked about the big losses among ourselves," senior safety Sean Cattouse said. "After games we'd watch film and wonder, 'How did we allow that to happen?' "
The no-show performances would occur with no pattern or easy explanation. The Jahvid Best-led Bears were ranked No. 6 in the country two years ago before the Oregon and USC drubbings. Last fall, Cal gave the No. 1-ranked Ducks a tussle before losing 15-13. But a week later, the Bears were clobbered by Stanford 48-14 in their worst Big Game loss in 80 years.
"For whatever reason," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said, "sometimes things tend to snowball."
And the Bears would be buried in the avalanche.
"I've never once felt that we had people giving up," Tedford added. "But my gut feeling is that we have the type of character on this team to show resiliency. This is one of the closest teams that we've had."
Players are careful not to say that the program lacked anything the past two years. Rather, they contend there is just "more" this season. More focus. More leadership. More trust in one another.
When the players returned to school in January, they found posters and shirts bearing these words: Team Matters.
Mike Blasquez, the longtime Cal strength coach who is in his first year working primarily with the football team, served as Tedford's conduit for emphasizing a daily message that the players must learn to handle adversity better.
"It started with Coach Blasquez in the offseason," Cattouse said. "He would put us in tough situations through training just to teach us to persevere and accept that when it gets hard, you need to welcome the challenge."
Sort of like what they face now. Cal players understand that the Pac-12 Conference road only gets tougher after the missed opportunity at Washington.
"But you can see they have a mentality of no quit," said Mike Pawlawski, the former Cal quarterback who now serves as a television broadcaster. "I don't want to say that guys would throw in the towel before, but their speed would change. I don't see any speed change this year. They believe they can win."
It won't be easy. The upcoming stretch -- after Oregon and USC comes Utah -- likely will define the season. And if the Bears get walloped along the way, it only will reinforce an unwanted reputation.
"That's what fans really don't like, and I understand," Tedford said of the blowout losses. "But we're about to find out if this team is different." Then he added: "I sure hope so."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.
During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, seven of Cal's 12 defeats were by at least 21 points. The beat-down:
Nov. 20 vs. Stanford: Cardinal 48, Bears 14
Oct. 30 at Oregon State: Beavers 35, Bears 7
Oct. 16 at USC: Trojans 48, Bears 14
Sept. 17 at Nevada: Wolf Pack 52, Bears 31
Dec. 5 at Washington: Huskies 42, Bears 10
Oct. 3 vs. USC: Trojans 30, Bears 3
Sept. 26 at Oregon: Ducks 42, Bears 3
Cal (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) at Oregon (3-1, 1-0), 6 p.m. ESPN