No longer glamorous, USC-Cal is about desperation

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

A California offensive tackle is late getting out of his stance -- perhaps due to crowd noise -- and the Oregon defensive end sacks the Bears quarterback as a receiver breaks wide open downfield. The Cal receiver drops the ball deep in Ducks territory. Cal's pulling offensive lineman falls on his face so the lone Duck defender between the running back and a huge gain makes the tackle. The Cal receiver gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after drawing a pass interference flag. The Cal defender recovers a fumble only to immediately fumble the ball back to Oregon.

The pass arrives late. Or it arrives early.

How did Cal flop so outrageously in a 42-3 loss at Oregon? At least one Bear screwed up on just about every play while 11 Ducks executed.

"It was a lopsided football game that surprised everybody," USC coach Pete Carroll said.

Actually, USC's All-American center Kristofer O'Dowd, a three-year starter, said he doesn't get shocked anymore. Otherwise, how could the Trojans deal with their own flop at Washington, a team they beat 56-0 last year?

"It's college football," O'Dowd said. "We're in the Pac-10. Any given Saturday anything can happen. We've been a witness to that. It's not really shocking."

What seemed like the Pac-10 game of the year in the preseason is now a showdown of wounded giants (ABC, 8 p.m. EST). Both teams are laden with talent. Both teams gagged terribly in their Pac-10 openers.

Only seven times in Pac-10 history has the champion lost two conference games. And -- pay attention Cal -- that champion never started 0-2 in conference play.

So while it's not the scintillating matchup of top-10 teams with national championship implications -- at least not obvious ones at this juncture of the season -- No. 7 USC's visit to No. 24 Cal owns a high degree of gravity because the winner re-emerges while the loser is relegated to the slag heap.

That would be a new experience for USC under Pete Carroll, but Cal coach Jeff Tedford knows better than most how fragile a promising season can be.

Immediately after the loss at Oregon, his least favorite topic reappeared: 2007.

That's when Cal, on the cusp of rising to No. 1 for the first time in 56 years, committed a monumental execution failure in the waning moments against Oregon State. Quarterback Kevin Riley, who was making his first career start, failed to throw the ball away or run out of bounds and stop the clock, killing the Bears' opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal that would have forced overtime.

It was the only time anyone can remember the businesslike Tedford going completely nuts on the sideline.

That crushing moment became the first of six losses in Cal's next seven games.

Riley, now a junior, is the Bears' starting quarterback. In the first three games, he rolled up great numbers and was ranked sixth in the nation in pass efficiency. After completing just 12 of 31 passes for 123 yards against the Ducks, he now ranks 44th in the nation and fourth in the Pac-10 in pass efficiency.

The question presently haunting Cal fans is whether another moment of high expectations is going to be met with a crushing implosion.

"A couple of the veteran players talked about [2007], talked about how we can't let it happen," Riley said. "This is a different team. We don't think that's going to happen. We know last week didn't go well but it's over with."

Tedford said that he believe his team "understands that's not who we are" after watching the Oregon film. He also said he learned a hard coaching lesson in 2007.

"I learned a lot as a coach that year -- that there's a lot more to it than just X's and O's," he said. "To keep your team motivated, to keep their confidence up and keep them together is a big thing."

USC floundered back from the loss at Washington with a lackluster effort against Washington State. The Trojans have been riddled with injuries, and freshman quarterback Matt Barkley's bruised shoulder, which sidelined him during the loss to the Huskies, is only this week showing real signs of improvement.

The latest USC player to get hurt was particularly shocking: Senior running back Stafon Johnson suffered major trauma to his voice box and windpipe when he dropped a 275-pound bar on his neck while doing bench-press. Johnson's season is over, but that was good news considering the incident could have been life-threatening.

While everyone on the team was shaken by Johnson's emergency surgery, which lasted more than seven hours, O'Dowd said it will serve as a rallying point, not a distraction.

"You'd think everybody would be down, but when we heard word from Stafon that he's fired up about this week that gives us confidence to come out with that extra edge," he said.

Speaking of an extra edge, Cal running back Jahvid Best admitted he won't have to look for one Saturday. He gained just 55 yards against the Ducks, and last year USC completely shut him down, holding him to just 30 yards rushing.

In fact, the Cal rushing attack has been bottled up for the past six quarters as teams piled up defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop Best, daring Riley to make plays over the top.

Best knows the Trojans will be gunning for him. And he knows a big play from him could spark his teammates, not to mention the Memorial Stadium crowd.

“It just gives me a little bit more motivation to go out there and produce this weekend, just to show that I can produce," Best said.

Both teams have been high on expectations but middling on production thus far, and that's why what could have been a glamour matchup is now mostly about desperation.