BERKELEY -- No one in the Cal dressing room was feeling any consolation Saturday after a 33-28 loss to Arizona, but this was progress.
Having now lost seven in a row, 11 straight to Pac-12 opponents and 13 to FBS foes, the Golden Bears (1-8, 0-6) at last looked like a competent, competitive football team.
And that was rarely the case during six previous defeats by an average margin of 27 points.
Or during a seemingly endless stretch of 364 minutes, 22 seconds of playing time in which they never held a lead.
That drought ended on the first series of the game, and Cal continued to play with a purpose to the finish, with Jared Goff and receiver Kenny Lawler making their third touchdown connection with 1:42 left to pull the Bears within five points.
Arizona (6-2, 3-2) recovered the Bears' onside kick try and ran out the clock to become bowl eligible.
Asked if the result was encouraging or frustrating to his players, coach Sonny Dykes said: "They want to see tangible results. The fact they we played better against a good team showed them we are making progress.
"They'll take something from that, but our goal is to win. To our players' credit, they expect to win and think they can win."
The Bears have three more chances to do that this season, starting next Saturday with their home finale against USC.
Cal did more things well and made fewer mistakes than in recent games. Goff threw a career-best four touchdown passes, the offensive line didn't allow a sack and the defense refused to allow Ka'Deem Carey to run wild.
"That team is definitely better than 1-8," said Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker, who passed for 261 yards and a touchdown and ran for three more. "They're going to be a good team, the end of this year and next year."
But the Cal defense could not force a turnover and Goff had two costly ones with the game in the balance.
"It definitely hurts," Goff said of the defeat. "It was in our grasp and we just didn't grab it. I can't throw interceptions."
"Eliminate the little mistakes and we'll be good," Lawler said.
Lawler's spectacular, one-handed catch of a 3-yard TD pass from Goff with 3:34 left in the third quarter got the Bears within 26-21.
The defense forced a punt, but Goff was intercepted by Jonathan McKnight on a third-and-10 play from the Cal 17. Four plays later, Denker faked a handoff to NCAA rushing leader Carey and ran it in from the 14 for a 33-21 lead.
The Bears came back with a drive to the Arizona 20 before Goff, on fourth-and-2, tried sneaking a pass down the middle to Brendan Bigelow. Safety Jourdan Grandon stepped in at the last moment to intercept it in the end zone with 10:27 left in the game.
"I just forced it a little," Goff said of the second interception.
Cal got the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in 12 plays, with Goff throwing 11 yards to fellow freshman Khalfani Muhammad for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 10:38 left. It was the Bears' first lead since their win over FCS opponent Portland State on Sept. 7.
The Bears' defense, shredded for 241 rushing yards by Washington's Bishop Sankey last week, focused on stopping Carey. The 2012 NCAA rushing king managed 152 yards to top 100 for the 11th straight game, but 15 of his 32 carries went for 2 yards or less.
The attention Cal paid to Carey allowed Denker to thrive. A week after going for 457 yards of total offense against Colorado, he delivered timely completions or found running room on keepers.
Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who had nine tackles and one of Cal's three sacks, said the defense made progress. "In some parts of the game we did that," he said. "We need to get turnovers and big plays."
He needs to average 206.3 yards the rest of the season to break Pat Barnes' 1996 school record of 3,499.
USC (6-3, 3-2 Pac-12)
at Cal (1-8, 0-6), noon, Fox
Coach Sonny Dykes lauds offensive line for its best day of the season. Go to mercurynews.com/cal-bears