In 1991, the Bears were riding high with a perfect 5-0 start when the #1 ranked Washington Huskies came to Berkeley. The game was back-and-forth all day, with the Huskies scoring late in the 4th quarter to take a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Again, the Bears' hopes ended on downs deep in Washington territory. As it turned out, the winner of that game would be the Pac 10 champion, a fact that wouldn't have changed for Cal had they won, even with their upset loss to Stanford in the Big Game.
In 2006, the equation was much simpler: Win and you earn at least a share of the Pac 10 championship and represent the Pac 10 against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Lose and play in a bowl that is a far cry from Pasadena.
The Rose Bowl has been an elusive prize for the Bears, with the Bears last appearance long ago in 1959, a fact that any Bear fan could tell you with much consternation.
The contest lost a little of its luster last week when the Bears fell victim to an upset loss at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats. Instead of what was setting up to be a battle of the #4 and #5 teams in the nation, just hours after a battle between #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan, the Bears plummeted to #17 in the polls. Regardless, the loss did nothing to diminish the stakes of this game. Despite the rankings, the winner would take all in the Pac 10.
The game began with a surprise announcement of sorts. Top USC recruits CJ Gable and Allen Bradford received their first collegiate starts at tailback and fullback respectively vs. the Bears. Both were Cal recruits in 2005 and both were fairly untested at the collegiate level.
As has been the norm this season, the Bears started off the game receiving the opening kick from the Trojans.
In the opening drive, Robert Jordan picked up a big 1st down for the Bears, with an 12 yard reception on 3rd down to the Cal 34. The drive continued with another 3rd down conversion, with TE Craig Stevens picking up the 1st down at the Trojan 50. However, the drive ended shortly thereafter, with the Bears having to punt in the next series.
Pinned back on their 10 yard line, the Trojans were undaunted, completing a 16 yard pass to Steve Smith on 1st down. USC moved the ball almost at will, with solid gains on most plays, including a 17 yard run up the middle by RB Chauncey Washington to the Cal 38.
After continuing their drive to the Bears 15, controversy involving the officials again plagued the Bears. After seemingly forcing a fumble on a pass in the flat, Bear linebacker Mickey Pimentel picked up the loose ball and rumbled 90 yards for what appeared to be a Bear touchdown. However, officials ruled the ball was never in the receiver's possession and the Trojans retained the ball.
The Bears defense stiffened at that point, with safety Bernard Hicks making the big play, stopping Washington on a sweep wide right where he seemed to have the angle for a td. USC was forced to kick a field goal and took the first lead of the game, 3-0 with 4 minutes left in the quarter.
The Bears running game got in gear on the ensuing possession, with Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett putting the team on their backs, driving the team into Trojan territory. The drive ended quickly, however with Taylor Mays intercepting a deep Longshore pass on the 1, seemingly coming from the end zone bleachers to come up with the ball. The Trojans' celebration was short-lived as it turned out, with Brandon Mebane stuffing Washington deep in the backfield for a safety to bring the score to 3-2.
DeSean Jackson took the ensuing punt and returned it to the Cal 47 where the Bears drive began at the end of the 1st quarter. The drive stalled at the Trojan 29 when QB Nate Longshore coughed up the ball on a sack and the Trojans took over the possession.
The Trojans couldn't capitalize on the turnover and were forced to punt without a 1st down.
After being stuffed with no return when Jackson was stopped at the 10, the Bears were forced to punt after three plays as well.
The Trojans finally moved the ball past midfield with a 10 yard run by Washington. After a questionable roughing the passer call on LB Mickey Pimentel brought the ball deep into Cal territory, the drive stalled and kicker Mario Danelo kicked a 32 yard field goal to bring the Trojan lead to 6-2 with 5:40 remaining in the half.
After narrowly avoiding disaster with a Forsett fumble subsequently recovered by DeCoud on the kickoff, the Bears struck quickly, with DeSean Jackson finally breaking free down the right sideline for a 36 yard gain on a Longshore pass. The Bears struck quickly again with a 29 yard pass to Robert Jordan.
The Trojan defense stiffened at the 6, forcing a 3rd down for the Bears. After a timeout by Cal, they came back with the right call, with a 6 yard Longshore td on a delayed rout up the middle by WR Lavelle Hawkins with 3:30 left in the half to go up 9-6.
The lead would hold for Cal as they stuffed the Trojans on successive plays deep in USC territory as the half ended with the ball on the Trojan 1 yard line with the Trojans heading to the locker room wondering what happened to their momentum and lead.
Cal held onto the momentum in the 2nd half after stuffing the Trojans after a strong run back to the 35 by CJ Gable.
The Bears drove to the Trojan 38, with the big play coming on a 15 yard Craig Stevens reception, but their drive stalled. On 4th down, Head Coach Jeff Tedford went for an uncharacteristic 55 yard field goal, which fell far short, leaving the score 9-6.
The Trojans capitalized on the Bears' lost opportunity, marching back down the field with frosh CJ Gable leading the way. After considering going for it on 4th and 15 from the Bears 32, the Trojans called timeout and instead opted for the long field goal. Kicker Danelo converted from 49 to knot the score at 9-9 with 3:30 left in the 3rd.
After stopping the Bears on the next possession, the Trojans marched back down the field, with Trojan quarterback JD Booty going 4 for 4, with the critical completion a 37 yard td to Keith Garrett, who held onto the ball despite a big hit by safety Bernard Hicks with 13:30 left in the game to take a 16-9 lead.
The Trojans held the Bears to just 2 yards in the next possession and took over after a punt at their 44 yard line, in a great position to extend their momentum. They drove the ball to the Bear 38 where they faced another critical 4th down decision.
Coming out of their second time out, Trojans' Coach Pete Carroll opted to go for it on 4th down. The gutsy call paid off as Trojans' receiver Steve Smith caught All-American cornerback Daymeion Hughes napping in run support, blowing by him for the easy touchdown to put a dagger in the Bears' heart with 8:23 remaining in the game to go up 23-9. There was still time for a rally, but the crowd could sense things gradually slipping away.
Again, the Bears' offense went nowhere on the next series as the Bears were forced to punt without a 1st down.
The Trojans steadily wore down the clock, and along with it, the hopes of Bear fans everywhere. The Holiday Bowl may be a holiday to some but for Bear fans hungry for an end to the interminable run without a Rose Bowl appearance, every tick of the clock was a dagger in the heart.
After a USC punt brought the ball back to the Bear 38 with 3:52 to play, the Bears were effectively down to their last gasp opportunity.
Suddenly, the Bear hopes came alive as Marshawn Lynch pulled off another of his patented highlight reel runs for a 62 yard touchdown, however the review of the play conclusively showed that Lynch's knee was down at the Cal 47 yard line. Another week, another long td run called back, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the zebras got it wrong on this one, as desperate as the Bears were for the td. The Bears hopes died with the replay call, as their drive stalled and they turned the ball back over to the Trojans on downs.
One final possession ended in futility as well, with Longshore's final pass being picked off at the 5 to effectively end the game. At 8-3, the Bears' season would be considered a success by many at this stage, especially compared to many past seasons of futility. But for a team and fans that developed such high hopes after starting out 8-1 and plowing through much of their competition, the loss has to sting in a very painful way.
Suddenly the game that's called Big does not loom nearly so large after a Thanksgiving weekend bye, as it once always did, but the challenge that lies beyond is for the Bears and their fans to pick up the pieces of their shattered championship dreams and finish the season strong.
San Diego is beckoning the Bears. If only the flight South could end a half an hour sooner late December. Bear fans can only hope that Pasadena will not remain flyover territory annually come bowl season for the Bears.