Cal was beaten badly by USC for the third straight season Thursday night, but this time the setback followed a different script.
In the past two years, the Bears were on their heels from the outset and were dominated on both sides of the ball. On Thursday night, Cal seemed to be on par athletically with the Trojans, but an onslaught of mistakes contributed to a 30-9 loss in front of 44,043 at AT&T Park.
The Bears, who dropped to 0-3 in conference play for the first time in Jeff Tedford's 10 seasons as coach, committed five turnovers, four by quarterback Zach Maynard. Cal (3-3 overall) also had a handful of botched snaps and ball-handling errors, failed to make a first down on a fake punt attempt and saw punt returner Marvin Jones inexplicably call for a fair catch at his own 3-yard line.
Cal outgained USC 329-313 as its defense silenced the Trojans' potent aerial attack. But the Bears couldn't get out of their own way.
"You can't beat a good football team like SC when you turn the football over five times," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "There's no question there are some good things, but there are some things that need to be improved. Sometimes maybe we're trying too hard. You just have to trust your fundamentals and go back to work."
It was a particularly rough night for Maynard, who was intercepted three times, lost a fumble and dropped a couple of shotgun snaps. One of his interceptions ended a promising drive near the end of the first half that would have given the Bears life heading into the intermission, when they trailed 20-0.
After some encouraging signs during Cal's first three games, Maynard has struggled in losses to Oregon and USC.
"I just have to watch film and see the mistakes I made," Maynard said. "I tried to force the ball a couple plays."
The collection of miscues by the offense undermined a defense that turned in a fine performance. Standout USC receiver Robert Woods was held to just five catches for 36 yards, well below his per game average of 11 catches for 149.4 yards. Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen, who is battling Woods for postseason awards, caught a career-high 13 passes for 160 yards.
All three interceptions thrown by Maynard came when he appeared to force a pass to a receiver who was well covered.
Maynard gave Cal fans hope by leading the Bears on two scoring drives in the third quarter. His 3-yard touchdown run cut USC's lead to 23-9 after Giorgio Tavecchio missed the extra point.
Cal's defense got the ball back again for the offense, but Jones called his ill-advised fair catch to put the Bears in a hole. Cal ended up having to punt, and Maynard threw his final plick on the Bears' next possession deep in their own territory. USC capitalized with its final touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
"With the speed of the game we play in this conference, it's something you need to adjust to," Tedford said. "With a guy like him, as competitive as he is and with the composure that he has, I have a lot of confidence that he will get it. It was a tough day. He's not the first quarterback to have a tough day. We're going to improve on this."
For the Bears, the coming days will be a test of their mental toughness. Cal is out of the Pac-12 race and now is in a battle to become bowl-eligible.
"None of these games have we given up," defensive end Trevor Guyton said. "We're playing hard. We may make a few mistakes here or there. These past three games haven't gone our way and we know that."