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Cal's new appointment with disappointment

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Jeff Tedford's Golden Bears suffer an upset that frustrates anew their aspirations to elite status. And now USC looms.

September 27, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Two thoughts to take out of Saturday: Never, EVER trust an e-mail that says you inherited millions, or California football.

The Gummy Bears botched it again, charging out to an early 3-0 lead at Oregon before allowing the next 42 points in a defeat in Eugene that left legions of Cal followers muttering that old Bill Parcells refrain, "You are what you are."

What kind of preparatory work was this in advance of incoming USC?

Tie-dye shirt vendors in Berkeley are busy working on the latest prints:

* Cal: "Trying to get it right since Wrong Way Roy."

* Cal: "We're always shaky -- we live on a fault line."

* Cal: "No Heisman Trophy Winners . . . through 2009?"

After 42-3, with all that was at stake, after recovering the opening kickoff and then settling for a field goal after not giving one ball touch to the nation's best running back, what else could you say?

Cal had another opportunity Saturday to show street peddlers and pundits it should be taken seriously. With Mississippi losing Thursday, the sixth-ranked Bears had a chance to move into the top five with USC headed to Berkeley next weekend.

But east is always east, west is always west, and Cal is always Cal.

Every time the team gets to the brink, it blinks.

In 2003, Jeff Tedford's second year, Cal pulled off a triple-overtime win against USC in Berkeley that some thought foretold the Bears' arrival as an enduring rival to Pete Carroll's budding dynasty.

Cal hasn't beaten USC since.

In 2006, Cal had only to take care of lowly Arizona in Tucson a week in advance of another huge showdown against USC.

Cal lost at Arizona, and then at USC.

Two years ago, after a big win at Oregon, Cal would rise to No. 2 and come 10 yards from becoming No. 1 for the first time since 1951 when it ran out of clock at home against Oregon State, one of six losses in its final eight games as it finished 7-6.

In between pratfalls, Cal has produced 10-win seasons, Emerald and Armed Forces Bowl victories, and many fine players. But it has failed, to borrow pommel horse parlance, to stick the landing.

We're way beyond the argument about what Cal was before Tedford arrived -- he's been an upgrade bump from steerage to posh.

Cal is now in the discussion of schools playing for conference titles and big-boy prizes.

Tedford, two years ago, accepted the blame for the collapse by saying he failed to focus on the details. He also said every team is different -- and right now he had better hope next week's team is different.

Look, it's college football -- crazy things happen. Oregon obviously wasn't as horrid as it looked in its opener against Boise State, and Cal can't be as ordinary as it looked at Autzen.

Anyone who says he has this season figured out is lacking significant brain cells, an Alabama fan, or both. Who'd have thought UCLA would be the only remaining undefeated Pac-10 team?

Ten of the top 15 teams in this year's preseason Associated Press poll have already lost.

Top 10 schools that lost this weekend included Mississippi, Cal, Miami and Penn State.

No. 7 Louisiana State was so clearly superior to unranked Mississippi State it only needed a goal-line stand to win by four.

Yet the shortcomings at Cal, at the most critical times, almost seem voodoo-like and/or systemic.

History is a harsh reminder. Cal lost to Iowa in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1959 and hasn't been back. The only other school from the Pacific 10 or Big Ten that hasn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1959 is Arizona. And the Wildcats didn't join the Pac until 1978.

Cal's credibility may have been lost on Saturday, but the season was not.

The same as it was not two years ago after Cal suffered that heartbreaker at home against Oregon State. The season was lost when Cal lost the next week at UCLA -- then four times after that.

"We've got to fight, that's all there is to it," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said Saturday. "It's one loss, but we don't want it to be a downward spiral. We'll come back and surprise some people. It's a lot easier to play at home."

Cal, as a collective, needs to take a long hot shower and a longer look in a mirror.

Forget, for now, about Jahvid Best becoming the first Cal player to win the Heisman Trophy. With Cal falling behind quickly, Best became a non-factor Saturday. He finished with 55 yards in 16 carries.

Meanwhile, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the Heisman favorite, was writing another heroic chapter to his tale, fighting off flu-like symptoms to lead the Gators over Kentucky in a game he left early after getting knocked woozy.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy had a huge day in a lopsided win against Texas El Paso.

Handicapping the Heisman race, Cal's tailback is now third Best.

The next two weeks are critical to Cal's salvation -- and it won't be easy. Even if Cal is able to defeat USC next week in Strawberry Canyon, the Bears must then travel to Los Angeles to play UCLA.

Tedford, as Cal's coach, is 0-7 in Southern California against USC and UCLA.

Also, as part of a cost-cutting measure in the cash-strapped UC system, Cal is taking the bus this year to the UCLA game.

The way Cal played Saturday, the Bears are lucky they weren't forced to walk home from Oregon.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLAT

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