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Best Non-Big Games Of The 2000s #2: USC 2004

This cheating cheater managed to cheatingly cheat USC's way to cheatiful victory over the beloved Golden Bears.
This cheating cheater managed to cheatingly cheat USC's way to cheatiful victory over the beloved Golden Bears.

[NorCalNick and I worked on this post. The CGB team is counting down the Best Non-Big Games of the 2000s in advance of the first Cal season of the new decade. We have had #10 Baylor, 2002, #9 Washington, 2006, #8 Michigan St. 2002, #7 Texas A&M 2006, #6 Virginia Tech 2003, #5 Oregon 2006, #4 Tennessee 2007, #3, Oregon 2007 and now today, #2 USC 2004]

I know, I know. How did this game get here? I can imagine the outrage building in your fingers at your lean forward to type an angry screed! But let me explain, let me explain!

When we sat down to determine what the Best Non-Big Games of the 2000s were, it was important to define the word "best." Does "best" mean solely "Cal win"? Or can one of the "best" games not include a win?

In the horribly unfair world of college football, winning and losing are, unfortunately, not as important as you might think. 2004 was a perfect example. Cal beat Southern Missippi. Texas did nothing. Texas moved ahead of Cal. Ouch!

In college football, perception is reality. Even in losing, one can win, if they win the reality battle, the perception battle. So, hold off on all of your frustrated rants, because before this brutally frustrating game Cal was just some Pac10 team. After that, it was on the national radar, a team led by superstar Aaron Rodgers.

NorCalNick: I feel the same now as I did back in 2004 - never has a loss been more painful, and never has a loss been easier to accept. The best Cal football team in my, and many other cal fans’ lifetimes had just outplayed perhaps the best team of the decade.

And lost.

But hold on, you say! How can this game possibly make the list? How can such a painful loss be one of the ten best non Big Games of the decade? And how can it be number two on the list? Well, first take note that this list isn’t ‘Best non Big Game wins of the decade. Certainly, when voting and ranking these games, a Cal victory was a major plus. But we also had to consider the quality of the opponent, the importance and impact of the game on the individual season and historically, and the quality of play in the game itself. This game is the only game on our list that Cal lost, and that is in part because when Cal loses they usually didn’t play very well. Jeff Tedford is a good enough coach, and he has assembled enough talent, that when his players are playing well the Bears almost always walk away with a victory.

Additionally, consider the stakes of this game: As it turned out, this game was a functional play in game for the BCS Championship. I suppose you could make an argument that if Cal had lost this game that Oklahoma and Auburn would have been voted #1 and #2 over an upstart Cal team, but the respect for that year’s USC outfight was so high that any team that knocked them off would have immediately gained legitimacy as a title contender. And with good reason. All Americans, Heisman winners and successful NFLers littered the Trojan roster that year. It was the single best team produced by the single best program of the 2000s. And unlike 2003, when a lightly regarded Cal team snuck up on USC for a thrilling triple OT victory, the Trojans were not going to overlook the 2004 Bears. Cal came in with a top-10 ranking and college gameday made the trip to Los Angeles for the game. It was the single most important Pac-10 game of the year and everybody knew it. And the game lived up to the hype in every way.

The loss was one of the easiest losses to accept because losing to the number one team in the country is never a surprise. It was easy to accept because every commentator, analyst and columnist in the country recognized the talent of the Bears and praised Cal in defeat. It was easy to accept because we had the best QB in the NCAA (sorry, Utah fans).

It was the most painful loss ever because we were nine yards away from the most important victory in fifty years of football. It was painful because the best Cal team many had ever seen came the same year as the best USC team many had ever seen. It was painful because, through an amazing confluence of bad luck, embarrassing politicking and stupid poll voting, the reward for this extremely talented team was a Holiday Bowl vs. Texas Tech.

TwistNHook: To understand the brutal frustration of this game, you only have to look at the amount of success USC had in the 4th quarter:

      U 1-10 C34   USC TROJANS drive start at 14:45 (4th).
U 1-10 C34 Leinart, Matt pass incomplete to Bush, Reggie.
U 2-10 C34 White, LenDale rush for 5 yards to the CAL29 (Mixon,Tim).
U 3-5 C29 Bush, Reggie rush for loss of 5 yards to the CAL34 (Riddle,Ryan).
U 4-10 C34 Leinart, Matt pass complete to Mitchell, Jason for 5 yards to the CAL29
--------------- 4 plays, 5 yards, TOP 01:34 ---------------
   U 1-10 U20   Bush, Reggie rush for 4 yards to the USC24 (Gutierrez,Ryan).
U 2-6 U24 White, LenDale rush for 4 yards to the USC28 (Riddle,Ryan).
U 3-2 U28 Leinart, Matt sacked for loss of 8 yards to the USC20 (Hunter,Wendell).
U 4-10 U20 Malone, Tom punt 52 yards to the CAL28, Mixon,Tim return 7 yards to the
CAL35 (Walker, John;Wright, Eric).
--------------- 3 plays, 0 yards, TOP 02:22 ---------------

So, in the fourth quarter, USC had 7 plays for 5 yards. They held the ball for 2:59. During that time period, Cal had 25 plays for 102 yards. 102 yards! And what did Cal get for this 102 yards. Well, everybody knows about the fateful four plays at the goal line, but the real key to understanding the fourth quarter is to look at the previous drive.

That drive was a thing of beauty. 15 plays 52 yards.

  C 1-10 C29   CALIFORNIA drive start at 13:11 (4th).
C 1-10 C29 Arrington,JJ rush for 5 yards to the CAL34 (Patterson, Mike).
C 2-5 C34 Rodgers,Aaron pass complete to Lynch,Marshawn for 4 yards to the CAL38,
out-of-bounds (Ware, Scott).
C 3-1 C38 Lynch,Marshawn rush for 2 yards to the CAL40, 1ST DOWN CAL (Rucker,
C 1-10 C40 Arrington,JJ rush for 8 yards to the CAL48 (Tatupu, Lofa;Ware, Scott).
C 2-2 C48 Manderino,C. rush for 3 yards to the USC49, 1ST DOWN CAL (Rucker,
C 1-10 U49 Rodgers,Aaron pass complete to McArthur,Geoff for 8 yards to the USC41,
out-of-bounds (Wyatt, Justin).
C 2-2 U41 Lynch,Marshawn rush for loss of 3 yards to the USC44 (Sartz, Dallas).
C 3-5 U44 Rodgers,Aaron rush for 6 yards to the USC38, 1ST DOWN CAL (Wright,
Eric;Tatupu, Lofa).
C 1-10 U38 Arrington,JJ rush for 2 yards to the USC36 (Rucker, Frostee).
C 2-8 U36 Rodgers,Aaron pass incomplete to Manderino,C..
C 3-8 U36 Timeout California, clock 08:57.
C 3-8 U36 Rodgers,Aaron pass complete to Makonnen,J. for 15 yards to the USC21, 1ST
(Wright, Eric).
C 1-10 U21 Rodgers,Aaron pass incomplete to Makonnen,J..
C 2-10 U21 Rodgers,Aaron pass complete to Arrington,JJ for 6 yards to the USC15 (Sartz,
Dallas;Tatupu, Lofa).
C 3-4 U15 Rodgers,Aaron pass complete to Lynch,Marshawn for loss of 4 yards to the
USC19 (Tatupu, Lofa).
C 4-8 U19 Schneider,Tom field goal attempt from 36 MISSED - wide right, spot at USC20,
clock 06:53.
--------------- 15 plays, 52 yards, TOP 06:18 ---------------

Rush after rush after rush. JJ. Marshawn. The 2004 team at its pure brilliance. But then it stalls at the USC 19 yard line. With about 7 minutes left in the game and Cal down by 6, Coach Tedford trots out his usual sure kicker Tom Schneider to cut the lead to 3.

Unfortunately, he misses. Now if he makes this field goal, about 7 game minutes later when Aaron Rodgers is sitting on 3 misses in a row, it's not as big of a deal. Schneider comes out to take a gimme field goal from the 9 yard line and well, we go to overtime. An overtime where USC just came off of a quarter where they got 5 total yards.

The overtime in the 2007 Oregon game is one of those "What ifs" that we were happy to avoid. Longshore was injured, Riley had never taken a meaningless snap, and Oregon knew that.

Well, the overtime in the 2004 USC game is one of those "What ifs" that we would have loved to see. In that parallel reality, Cal ties up the game and goes on to dominate overtime. Cal goes on to the Rose Bowl and Aaron Rodgers sticks around for the 2005 season. But not before I invest all my money in Facebook stock!

Alas, that was not the reality we faced on that unfortunate October day. What Cal did face was one of the greatest games that we fans have ever had the luck to see. Of course, a win would have been better, but taking a closer look at the numbers shows just how dominant Cal was that day against the eventual National Champion

                                   CAL      USC

FIRST DOWNS................... 28 12
Rushing..................... 11 6
Passing..................... 16 5
Penalty..................... 1 1
NET YARDS RUSHING............. 157 41
Rushing Attempts............ 44 25
Average Per Rush............ 3.6 1.6
Yards Gained Rushing........ 198 82
Yards Lost Rushing.......... 41 41
NET YARDS PASSING............. 267 164
Completions-Attempts-Int.... 29-35-0 15-25-1
Average Per Attempt......... 7.6 6.6
Average Per Completion...... 9.2 10.9
TOTAL OFFENSE YARDS........... 424 205
Total offense plays......... 79 50
Average Gain Per Play....... 5.4 4.1
Fumbles: Number-Lost.......... 4-3 1-0
Penalties: Number-Yards....... 6-46 5-36
PUNTS-YARDS................... 0-0 2-114
Average Yards Per Punt...... 0.0 57.0
Net Yards Per Punt.......... 0.0 54.0
Inside 20................... 0 1
50+ Yards................... 0 2
Touchbacks.................. 0 0
Fair catch.................. 0 0
KICKOFFS-YARDS................ 4-200 6-390
Average Yards Per Kickoff... 50.0 65.0
Net Yards Per Kickoff....... 19.0 65.0
Touchbacks.................. 0 6
Punt returns: Number-Yards-TD. 2-6-0 0-0-0
Average Per Return.......... 3.0 0.0
Kickoff returns: Number-Yds-TD 0-0-0 4-124-0
Average Per Return.......... 0.0 31.0
Interceptions: Number-Yds-TD.. 1-13-0 0-0-0
Fumble Returns: Number-Yds-TD. 0-0-0 0-0-0
Miscellaneous Yards........... 0 0
Possession Time............... 37:11 22:49
1st Quarter................. 8:00 7:00
2nd Quarter................. 9:27 5:33
3rd Quarter................. 9:56 5:04
4th Quarter................. 9:48 5:12
Third-Down Conversions........ 6 of 12 3 of 11
Fourth-Down Conversions....... 0 of 3 1 of 2
Red-Zone Scores-Chances....... 2-4 4-5
Sacks By: Number-Yards........ 4-30 5-20
PAT Kicks..................... 2-2 2-2
Field Goals................... 1-2 3-3

Where to even start with this? Cal more than doubled up USC on yards. That high powered USC offense that would obliterate all comers held to about 200 yards.

Cal was so dominant, it appears we never punted. Not even a single time. You would say, looking at these numbers, that Cal must have destroyed USC! But taking a closer look here you can see where the trouble lies. Check out this part of the stats:

KICKOFFS-YARDS................    4-200    6-390
Average Yards Per Kickoff... 50.0 65.0
Net Yards Per Kickoff....... 19.0 65.0
Touchbacks.................. 0 6
Punt returns: Number-Yards-TD. 2-6-0 0-0-0
Average Per Return.......... 3.0 0.0
Kickoff returns: Number-Yds-TD 0-0-0 4-124-0
Average Per Return.......... 0.0 31.0

So, let's see here. They had 65 yards a kick off on 6 total kick offs for 390 yards. Cal had 4 kick offs, but the real key is the net. While USC had 65 yards (meaning not a single return), Cal had 19. Which meant that USC was starting at mid-field nearly the entire time! They were averaging 31 yards on return. So, they didn't have to go that far to get into the red zone.


The 2004 USC team did not need any help. Yet Cal was giving it to them. Enough depressing thoughts, let's take a look at some positive numbers from the game, like this two headed beast:

Rushing         No Gain Loss  Net TD Lg  Avg
Arrington,JJ 21 116 4 112 0 15 5.3
Lynch,Marshawn 8 39 3 36 1 17 4.5

JJ had a great day and Marshawn spelled him on the day. As I noted before, a lot of those yards came in the 4th quarter as the Cal offense just dominated a worn down USC defense.

Passing         Att-Cmp-Int Yds TD Long Sack
Rodgers,Aaron 34-29-0 267 1 20 5

This was the day that really put Aaron Rodgers on the national map. Before those final 4 plays, he was 29 for 31 for 267 yards. And the most beautiful part is that for the awesomeness that was Geoff McArthur, Rodgers was spreading the love:

Receiving        No.  Yds   TD Long
McArthur,Geoff 7 101 1 20
Cross,Garrett 5 40 0 14
Arrington,JJ 4 26 0 8
Toler,Burl 3 16 0 8
Lynch,Marshawn 3 9 0 9
Lyman,Chase 2 28 0 17
Makonnen,J. 2 22 0 15
Manderino,C. 2 21 0 14
Smith,Noah 1 4 0 4
Totals... 29 267 1 20

8 various players caught 2 or more passes. McArthur had the day to remember with 101 yards.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. A review of the drives gives a general appreciation of this game:

                 Drive Started             Drive Ended             Consumed
Team Qtr Spot Time Obtained Spot Time How Lost Pl-Yds TOP
CAL 1st C20 15:00 Kickoff C31 12:08 Downs 5-11 02:52
CAL 1st C20 07:36 Kickoff U37 02:32 Fumble 10-43 05:04
CAL 1st C20 00:04 Kickoff U22 10:16 *FIELD GOAL 12-58 04:48
CAL 2nd C16 00:00 Punt C16 07:10 Fumble 0-0 00:00
CAL 2nd C20 06:17 Kickoff U00 01:37 *TOUCHDOWN 9-80 04:40#
CAL 2nd C20 00:03 Kickoff C19 00:00 End of half 1--1 00:03
CAL 3rd C20 12:11 Kickoff U00 05:30 *TOUCHDOWN 12-80 06:41#
CAL 3rd C13 03:15 Interception C34 14:45 Fumble 7-21 03:30
CAL 4th C29 13:11 Downs U19 06:53 Missed FG 15-52 06:18#
CAL 4th C35 04:31 Punt U14 01:16 Downs 10-51 03:15#

Every single one of Cal's drives started it its own territory. Many at the 20, if not further out. Inf act, only 2 were closer than the 20 and those were both in the 4th quarter. So, Cal had to do a lot of work to score. On top of that, they had 3 of their drives end with fumbles. What is interesting there if you see the fourth one down, it looks like the drive lasted 0 seconds long. It started with a punt and ended with a fumble. There, Cal received a punt, then immediately fumbled the ball during the punt play and USC recovered it. So, consider that a gift hail mary to USC!

Now, let's take a look at USC drives:

USC      1st C31  12:08  Downs         C00  07:36 *TOUCHDOWN      9-31  04:32#
USC 1st U37 02:32 Fumble C13 00:04 *FIELD GOAL 7-50 02:28#
USC 2nd U32 10:16 Kickoff U21 07:10 Punt 4--11 03:06
USC 2nd C16 07:10 Fumble C15 06:17 *FIELD GOAL 4-1 00:53#
USC 2nd U39 01:37 Kickoff C24 00:03 *FIELD GOAL 9-37 01:34
USC 3rd U34 15:00 Kickoff C00 12:11 *TOUCHDOWN 7-66 02:49#
USC 3rd C16 05:30 Kickoff C10 03:15 Interception 4-6 02:15#
USC 4th C34 14:45 Fumble C29 13:11 Downs 4-5 01:34
USC 4th U20 06:53 Missed FG U20 04:31 Punt 3-0 02:22
USC 4th U14 01:16 Downs U10 00:00 End of half 2--4 01:16

Several of those drives started in Cal territory, including akick off return taken all the way to the Cal 16 by that cheater Reggie Bush. They only had 1 turnover, which was an interception on that same drive starting at the Cal 16. Even when they started their drives in their own territory, it was in the 30s and much closer to Cal's side of the field. The only times they started at their own 20 or further out was in the Cal-dominated 4th quarter and one of those drives was the last 1:16 of the game where they just took two knees in the victory formation.

That is the real story of this classic game. Field position field position field position field position. Cal was clearly the better team on October 9, 2004! But thanks to ALLLAAAAAAAMMMMAAAAR! and some unfortunate fumbling problems, USC managed to hold off the Golden Bear assault.

Can anybody team take such pride in a loss? I do not know, but I hope that Cal fans will never feel such a bittersweet emotion again. Let's just flat out beat the Trojans!

NorCalNick: I can't speak to all Cal fans Twist, but I absolutely took pride in this loss. I'm sure many readers are already angry that we have a Cal loss ranked #2 on this list. But honestly, it's hard to argue that Cal has ever played better for 60 minutes than they did against USC in 2004. That Trojan team was so good. USC won eight games by 30 points or more that year, and Cal, in many ways, dominated the game statistically. Few times had I felt prouder of the Bears than listening to various TV talking heads praise Aaron Rodger's performance, laud JJ Arrington's tenacity and compliment a ferocious defensive performance. Cal may have lost, but that game turned the Bears into a truly respected national power for the rest of the year.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I always try to remember this game because it embodies something that football fans should be wise to remember: Sometimes, the team that plays the best on the day doesn't win. I'm not trying to argue that Cal was unequivically the better team that day, but I don't think anybody would argue that Cal played well enough that they 'deserved' to win. That they didn't illustrates the folly of evaluating a team based solely on wins and losses. The schedule may have had an L next to USC on it, but I didn't feel like my team lost that day.