For the fifth year in a row, a senior class at Cal enters its annual showdown with USC with one last chance to avoid going winless against the Trojans.
The Bears haven't beaten USC since 2003. Seven straight losses is the second-longest drought against the Trojans in the Pac-12 (excluding conference newcomers Colorado and Utah), behind Washington State. Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State have beaten the Trojans three times during that span.
USC isn't playing at the level it did under former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans are banned from playing in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But there is still something special about taking down Troy, especially because it has been so long since the Bears have done so.
The implications of Thursday's game at AT&T Park go well beyond the mystique of beating the Trojans. The difference between a win and a loss could have a significant effect on the rest of the season.
A loss would drop the Bears' conference record to 0-3 for the first time since 2001 and test Cal players not to let this season spiral out of control, especially after a losing season in 2010. A last-place finish in the Pac-12 North wouldn't seem out of the question, either.
On the flip side, a win would snap a two-game slide, putting the Bears in pretty good position for a bowl game after what was expected to be the toughest stretch on its schedule.
Cal's schedule lightens up after the visit by the Trojans. The Bears play three of their next four at AT&T, beginning with Utah on Oct. 22. The Utes are 0-3 in the Pac-12.
"We're going back somewhere that's supposed to be familiar, but it's really not because we've only been there once," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "Once we've played a couple games there, it will probably feel a little more like home."
USC has especially had Cal's number the past two seasons, outscoring the Bears by a combined 78-17 score. Last year at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Trojans led 42-0 at halftime en route to a 48-14 victory.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley averaged 270 yards passing while completing 63 percent of his passes in those two games. He threw five touchdown passes before halftime during last year's rout.
Barkley and the USC passing game have it going once again this year. The Trojans are averaging 317.8 passing yards per game, good for 15th nationally and third in the Pac-12 behind Arizona and Washington State.
The Bears' pass defense has been spotty this season, so their best chance of winning might come in a shootout. The good news for Cal is USC is ranked just 61st nationally in total defense (379.6 yards allowed per game) and 63rd in scoring defense (26.4 points allowed per game).
The Bears have demonstrated the potential to exploit a vulnerable defense, but recently that's been in the first half only. Cal has scored a total of three points in the second halves of their two Pac-12 games, against Washington and Oregon.
Some of that might be a product of playing from behind and their offense becoming too one-dimensional. But Cal might not have been in that position if it had been able to convert some red zone opportunities into touchdowns rather than field goals. Three times at Washington the Bears drove into the red zone but came away with only three points. It happened twice last week at Oregon and another time when Cal got to the Ducks' 21-yard line.
"That's really frustrating," Cal tailback Isi Sofele said. "We're getting into the red zone. We've moved the ball well against every team we've played so far. We have to learn how to finish things off. It's hard to get it in, but we have to learn how to be great like other teams. When we're in the red zone, we can't be getting stopped all the time."
Seven in a row
Cal's losing streak against USC:
Date Location Result
Oct. 16, 2010 USC 48-14
Oct. 3 2009 Cal 30-3
Nov. 8, 2008 USC 17-3
Nov. 10, 2007 Cal 24-17
Nov. 18, 2006 USC 23-9
Nov. 12, 2005 Cal 35-10
Nov. 9, 2004 USC 23-17