Not Quite Perfect

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LOS ANGELES-In the Cal football team's 23-17 loss to USC on Saturday, Aaron Rodgers was close to perfect. But against the No. 1 team in the nation, he wasn't close enough.

Rodgers completed 23 consecutive passing attempts to open the game, tying an NCAA record.

But attempts 32, 33 and 34 are the only ones that he will remember.

Each was a chance at the win. Each fell incomplete.

Down by six points and standing at the Trojans' nine yard line, the Bears had four plays to get the ball into the end zone.

On first down, Rodgers threw incomplete to a kneeling Noah Smith along the right side of the end zone.

Second down-Rodgers was sacked for a loss of five yards, pushing the line of scrimmage out to the 14.

Third down-Rodgers threw his final perfect pass, but the ball went clean through Geoff McArthur's outstretched arms, untouched.

On Cal's final play, Rodgers threw out of a collapsing pocket to Jonathan Makonnen. As the ball left Rodgers' right hand, Makonnen was tripped up, and by the time the ball got to him, he was left helpless. The ball fell to the ground.

USC took possession and knelt down to seal the victory.

"Anyone who watched this game came away thinking that we dominated the game," Rodgers said. "We just came up a little short."

Overall, Rodgers put together one of the best performances by a quarterback in Cal football history, completing 29 of 34 attempts for 267 yards and one touchdown. Up until his final three passes, Rodgers' only incompletions had been purposefully tossed away to avoid sacks.

"I knew that I was perfect for a while today," Rodgers said. "I was just in a zone."

The rest of the offense nearly matched Rodgers. He threw passes to nine different receivers, including seven passes for 101 yards to Geoff McArthur.

With Chase Lyman out for most of the second half with a hyper-extended knee that will require an MRI, McArthur again assumed the role of Rodgers' favorite target. McArthur scored the Bears' only touchdown of the first half when he received a pass from Rodgers at the 10, pivoted, shed his man and ran alone into the north corner of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum's east end zone.

Running back J.J. Arrington caught four balls for 26 yards and ran for 112 more. USC had not allowed a 100-yard rusher since Cal's Adimchinobe Echemandu accomplished the feat last season.

However, with Arrington cramping in the Los Angeles heat, true freshman Marshawn Lynch ran the ball eight times for 39 yards and scored the Bears' final touchdown with 5:30 remaining in third quarter.

While the team racked up 424 yards of total offense, the defense was equally as dominating, holding the Trojans to 205 yards on the day.

USC's average starting position was the Cal 49 yard line, but the defense consistently came up with big stops to keep the team in the game.

"The defense got put in bad positions," coach Jeff Tedford said. "They came through, and we were able to hold them."

On three occassions, the defense held the Trojans to field goals despite driving deep into Bears territory. On a fourth possession, after USC started on the Cal 16, Harrison Smith picked off a Matt Leinart pass in the end zone to keep the Bears within one possession with the score still 23-17 in the third quarter.

"Momentum was huge in this game, and after that interception we thought we had it," free safety Ryan Gutierrez said. "The (Cal) offense couldn't get much done-that's a testament to their defense."

While the offense couldn't capitalize on the defensive stops, it was the third phase of the game that was the Bears' weak point.

Four separate times, Cal made glaring special teams mistakes.

In the first quarter, the Trojans got the ball on the Bears' 31, when a bad snap prevented David Lonie from getting away a punt on fourth down. Nine plays later, USC had a 7-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Cal return man Tim Mixon fumbled a long Tom Malone punt, giving the Trojans the ball at the Bears' 17. USC subsequently converted a field goal.

In the third quarter after Cal pulled to within six at 23-17, the Trojans' Reggie Bush fumbled the ensuing kickoff twice at the goal line. Bush, however, picked it up and returned it 85 yards through a Cal coverage unit that had broken down.

"It takes all three phases of the game to win," Tedford said. "They got good field position on critical mistakes."

Finally, with just under seven minutes remaining, freshman kicker Tom Schneider missed a 36-yard field goal wide right. Schneider had converted his first attempt of his college career when he made a 39-yarder in the first quarter.

"It's pretty frustrating when we dominated every phase of the game," Rodgers said. "If we got a field goal on the second to last drive, we just needed a field goal to tie."

In the end, the Bears were left with a dominating performance in a losing effort against the nation's best team.

"I don't think that anyone can touch us offensively," Arrington said. "The D played great today. I think that we opened some eyes around the nation today."

Though their ranking dropped one spot to No. 8, and talk of a perfect season has ended, the Bears now know that they are among America's elite.

"We are one of the best teams in the country," defensive end Ryan Riddle said. "That's not taking anything away from 'SC-they are a great team. We're that caliber. We can take on anyone in the nation, and we're going to."

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