LOS ANGELES -- Faced with the opportunity to prove it hasn't completely fallen from the ranks of the Pac-10 elite, Cal's football team was rendered irrelevant by USC on Saturday.
The Bears looked as though they shouldn't even be on the same field as the Trojans. Cal was incompetent in every way imaginable, falling 48-14 in front of 72,386 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 preseason media poll, Cal appeared to be better than advertised in its first two conference games. The Bears had Arizona on the ropes on the road before they were beaten on a late touchdown then came back to dismantle UCLA last week.
Meanwhile, the Trojans hadn't been playing at the dominant level they had during the past decade, especially on defense. The Bears needed a win to separate themselves from the lower half of the conference. Instead, they looked as though that's exactly where they belong.
"I thought we had a good week (of practice)," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "You have to give SC a lot of credit. They got after us pretty well."
Cal's defense, which entered Saturday ranked eighth in the country in yards allowed per game, was picked apart by USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 352 yards and five touchdowns, all in the first half. Barkley made himself comfortable on the Trojans sideline late in the third quarter, his work day done after USC swarmed to a 45-0 lead.
The Bears' offense, meanwhile, was slowed to a halt against a unit that entered the game ranked 100th nationally in total defense. Wide receiver Marvin Jones dropped two passes early and tight end Spencer Ladner had another fall out of his hands. Cal quarterback Kevin Riley, under substantial pressure throughout the game, threw two first-half interceptions.
USC scored touchdowns on six of its seven possessions in the first half. Cal, meanwhile, didn't notch its initial first down until its fifth possession.
The Trojans led 42-0 at halftime, equaling the Bears' worst halftime deficit in school history.
"Obviously, the first half was a first half that we've never dealt with," Tedford said. "In both phases of the game, they beat us soundly in the first half."
While the Trojans started emptying their bench in the second half, Tedford stuck with his starters, including Riley. Although clearly it wasn't just Riley who was responsible for Cal's first-half woes on offense, he ruined drives with his two picks, including one with under a minute left in the first half when he threw a screen pass right into the hands of USC defensive tackle DaJohn Harris.
With the game clearly out of reach, Tedford still eschewed the opportunity to get a look at backup quarterback Beau Sweeney. He said he didn't want Riley and the rest of the starters on offense to end their day with the negative memories of the nightmarish first half.
"He gives us the best chance to win," Tedford said of Riley. "We needed to do what we needed to do to move the ball and put some points on the board. At that point, we needed to have our guys competing hard and put some points on the board. They don't want to end at halftime like that. They want to get out there and keep fighting."
Cal entered the day allowing just 148.8 passing yards per game, the sixth-best mark in the country. But the Bears got little pressure on Barkley, who made good use of wide receivers Robert Woods, Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry. The trio caught a combined 18 passes for 214 yards and five scores.
USC piled up 602 yards of offense.
"We had some mistakes out there, obviously. But I felt like we were ready to play," Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. "I thought we had a good week. I felt like the guys were locked in. I felt like we just didn't make any plays early to give us a lot of juice on defense, then it just kind of snowballed from there."
After the Trojans scored on their first possession, the Bears recorded back-to-back sacks on USC's next drive, and USC ended up pooch punting on a fake field goal attempt. But Cal continued to go three-and-out on offense, and the Trojans scored touchdowns on their next five possessions.
Trailing 28-0 midway through the second quarter, Cal moved the ball into USC territory. But Riley underthrew Ladner down the field, and it was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald.
The Bears are now 1-2 in the Pac-10 (3-3 overall) with games to still play against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford.
"You look at some of the teams in the Pac-10, there are some teams that are 1-2 and they are good teams," Riley said. "I think we'll be good. We just have to go out and practice. We just have to execute."
Cal returns home to play Arizona State next weekend. With a game at Oregon State looming after that, the Bears are in danger of finding themselves near the bottom of the standings heading into the second half of the conference season.
"I have a lot of faith in this team," Tedford said. "This is one game. There's character on this team. I believe the leadership will surface next week and we'll get back to work and get ready for another opportunity next week."
Arizona State (3-3) at Cal (3-3), 12:30 p.m. CSNBA