Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cal facing long odds in its quest to beat USC in L.A.

Here’s a football fact that can’t have Cal fans feeling too good approaching Saturday’s showdown against USC in Los Angeles: The Bears under coach Jeff Tedford are oh-for-L.A.

Since coming to Berkeley in 2002, Tedford has turned Cal into a football powerhouse. The Bears are 56-28 and have been to five straight bowl games under Tedford. But they’ve lost three straight games to UCLA at the Rose Bowl and three straight games to USC at the Memorial Coliseum.

Cal’s teams are always packed with players who grew up in Southern California. So-called homecoming games are filled with potential problems. Players can get too hyped up or too tight, overwhelmed with emotion. During his weekly news conference Monday, Tedford was asked if those problems had anything to do with the Bears’ lack of success in L.A.

“No,” Tedford said. “We’ve played well down there. We’ve had close games. … I don’t know that our players have played tight. I don’t know that our players haven’t played well. You’re playing a really good football team,” he said of USC. “They’re close games. They can go either way.

“I don’t think at all that our players go down there with the thought of feeling intimidated or trying to do more than they can do. I think they’re excited to play and (play) with high intensity and they lay it all on the line. I don’t think there’s anything that really needs to be addressed there besides you don’t need to be superhuman. You don’t have to do something special. Just play to your potential and play hard.”

Tedford’s team losing three straight to UCLA on the road is baffling. Losing three straight to USC is much easier to understand. Since 2002, USC has lost exactly one home game. That was last year to Stanford, a 24-23 loss that stands as one of the most stunning upsets in Pac-10 history.

Cal, as Tedord said, has come close to beating the Trojans in L.A. In 2002, the Bears fell 30-28.

In 2004, the Bears trailed just 23-17 late in the fourth quarter and had the ball deep in USC territory. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been almost perfect for most of the game, but he couldn’t get Cal into the end zone at the end in what was a crushing defeat for the Bears.

In 2006, Cal kept the game tight into the second half before USC pulled away for a 23-9 victory.

Tedford’s lone win over USC came in 2003 in Berkeley, a 34-31 triple-overtime thriller.

The oddsmakers have No. 21 Cal as a 17½-point underdog against the No. 7 Trojans. The Bears aren’t buying their long odds.

“It’s important to know that this is a good team, but they’re not unbeatable,” Cal center Alex Mack said. “I think it’s going to be more about what we do as a team and what kind of plays we make. If we get all over-concerned about how good they are or what they’re ranked or all this stuff, you’re going to come into the game feeling tight.

“It’s important to know that we just have to do what we have to do and do as well as we can. They’re still college players. There’s nothing extraordinary about them. It’s going to be about coming out and making plays.”

Mack is right about one thing. USC is not unbeatable. The Trojans lost 27-21 to Oregon State on the road in September. Last month the Trojans barely held on to beat Arizona 17-10. Of course that was another road game.

Maybe Tedford should show his team videotape of Stanford beating USC last year, just so the Bears know it’s possible for a road team to beat the Trojans at their home.

Motivation won’t be a problem. The Bears need to beat USC to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive.

“I’m glad we set ourselves in position to make this game count,” Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. “Last year we kind of had our downfall and once we got to this game finally, it didn’t matter which way it went.

“It’s an exciting game going there to L.A. I can remember going down there in ’06 and walking out there under the lights, and it felt like a dream out there. It’s definitely a great place to play, and that’s what every athlete on this team, every competitor on this team dreams of is to play in a game like this, of this magnitude.”

A victory Saturday would be huge for the Bears this season and potentially in the future. USC sits in the middle of one of the nation’s hottest football recruiting areas, an area that supplies most of the players for the Pac-10. There’s no telling what a win over the Trojans in L.A. might mean long-term for the Bears.

Those potential reinforcements won’t arrive until future seasons. These Bears will be on their own against USC.

“They seem to always have No. 1, No. 2 recruiting classes in the country,” Tedford said of USC. “So they recruit very well. They’re very well coached. It’s difficult. But you can still. … I don’t think there’s any doubt if you’re successful recruiting and you can stay healthy that you can compete.”

Now the question is whether Cal can do more than just compete and actually beat USC in L.A.

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