Jahvid Best took the direct snap from center, curled around left end and streaked for the goal line. Waiting for him there was Oregon State's Tim Clark, anticipating what was sure to be a glorious collision of chiseled brawn and youthful bravado.

It never happened. As he approached Clark, Best bounded into the air like a gazelle. Rather than run through the defender, Best had chosen to leap over him. Maybe to put an exclamation point on an arduous 15-play drive. Maybe to serve as an inspiration for a team that was trailing 14-0 and struggling to do anything well.

Maybe he did it because he could.

Regardless, in that moment Best personified all that the Cal football team believed itself to be and hoped for its future. He was unbounded by conventional physics, a dream in flight. It was exhilarating, a stupendous sight.

And then it was a horrifying vision. Best was nearing his apex — he wasn't going to clear Clark, but it was going to be close — when the pursuing Cameron Collins placed his hand on Best's hind end and gave him a shove.

Now Best was unthinkably high. Too high. Worse yet, his feet were pointed at the coal black sky, his back parallel to the ground. He landed terribly, on his right shoulder and the back of his head. It looked worse with every replay — Best's helmet flying off upon impact with the ground; his faced fixed in a grimace; his arms reflexively splayed out in front of him, unnaturally straight and stiff.

Memorial Stadium, a roaring cauldron of delight when Best was in midflight, fell eerily silent within seconds. Trainers sprinted to Best's side, then sprinted away for, well, you didn't want to think about that.

Cal quarterback Kevin Riley was moved to recall a young man he once saw paralyzed in a high school game. "There are bigger things than a football game," he said after Cal had been handled with ease by Oregon State to the tune of 31-14.

Best was strapped to a backboard, loaded on a gurney and wheeled away wearing an oxygen mask.

Though the crowd was never given an update, coach Jeff Tedford gathered his players and informed them Best had regained consciousness and was able to move his extremities.

"I'm not a doctor," linebacker Mike Mohamed said, "but that's usually a pretty good sign."

Then it was time to play some more football, to the extent that they could.

We need to be clear about this: Oregon State was the better team both before and after Best's terrible fall. The Beavers were going to win regardless. They outgained Cal, 436 yards to 239. They converted drive-sustaining third downs with ease (11-of-18) while Cal did not (4-of-13).

Oregon State quarterback Sean Canfield was masterful, completing 29 of 39 attempts for 342 yards and two touchdowns. Cal's defense forced one turnover, an interception by Sean Cattouse early in the second half. Three plays later, Riley threw a pick of his own, setting up an Oregon State field goal.

"They had an advance plan and they executed it, and we didn't," Tedford said.

On a day when there was a stunning compression in the Pac-10 standings — half the conference is now within a game of first place — the Bears found themselves in the bottom half looking up. It's a position they have achieved on merit.

They continue to be undermined by spotty play on the offensive line, an inability to achieve a rhythm in the passing game and chronically poor tackling. None of which is of any concern when your team's Heisman Trophy candidate is lying motionless on the field.

"It was scary," Cattouse said. "For a lot of guys, like me, it turned into a little bit of anger, a little bit of motivation."

Several Cal players spoke of wanting to use Best's injury as a rallying cry. But life isn't like the movies. They can feel badly about losing a game, but they shouldn't brood that they were unable to channel their emotions into a made-for-Disney comeback.

The question now is how they respond going forward. Best's playing status is uncertain, but this is not: One second he was flying through air representing the team's strength, and the next he was on the ground representing every athlete's inherent vulnerability.

That's a lot for a group of young men to absorb. And at the moment, football is only part of the process.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.