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Best Non-Big Games Of The Decade #1: USC 2003

[Waaaay back last summer CGB counted down the top 10 best non-Big Games of the 2000s. But the season rolled around so quickly that we never found space for the finale! At long last, here it is. Previously, 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 #2 USC 2004]

You all knew this game would be #1, right? It was a bigger slam dunk than a Randle-to-Christopher fast break alley-oop. Even if this game was against Southeast State Polytechnic A&M it would have been the most exciting game of the decade – last ditch comebacks, thrilling offense, timely defense, and three white-knuckled overtime periods. The fact that it came against USC, eventual AP National Champions and the #3 team in the nation at the time cements the title as best non Big Game of the 2000s, and one of the greatest Cal games in the history of the program.

At the time I was a freshmen living in Unit 2, and I remember distinctly trying to temper expectations for this game, both for myself and my dorm mates. I was afraid that a likely USC trouncing would sour them on the joys of Cal football. I even made jokes about not wanting to go to the game and have to listen to that damn band play for three hours while USC cruised to another victory.

The student section was a mad house – cursing, obscene gestures, and thousands of jingling keys – amongst other acts of disdain towards USC, their band, and the 15,000-20,000 or so Trojan fans who completely dominated the south side of the stadium. When Cal raced to a quick start and a lead the noise and intensity just kept going up. I would attend every home game except two (UW in 2003 and Oregon in 2006) over the rest of my four years as a student, but I was never part of a louder, more incensed, crazed student section. Until that point I had been a loyal, engaged Cal fan. But USC 2003 pushed me over the top, into a true obsessed die hard. And for that, I have Reggie Robertson to thank.

Perhaps jumping on an over-confident USC team early, Cal raced to a 21-7 lead behind strong performances from Aaron Rodgers and especially Adimchinobe Echemandu. But Rodgers sustained a variety of injuries, including a finger on his throwing hand that may explain why he created three turnovers with two interceptions and a fumbled snap. The turnovers allowed USC to surge back and tie the game at 21. Tedford and Rodgers agreed that he needed to leave the game. That opened the door for Robertson, unexpected hero.

It was at this point that my cynical nature again overtook me. The #3 team in the nation had awoken, and they weren’t going to mess around. Cal couldn’t possibly get away with three turnovers. But a funny thing happened. Cal’s defense stiffened. Tyler Frederickson hit a 51(!) yard field goal to give Cal the lead. Time was running out. Could the Bears actually hold on?

But USC and Matt Leinart had enough for one last drive for a field goal. Watching a replay of the game on Hulu, I was amused to watch Pete Carroll’s reaction to the field goal that tied the game and forced overtime. It was the look of a man with 100% certainty that his team would win the game. And perhaps, considering what USC would soon accomplish on the field, that attitude wasn’t entirely unwarranted. But it wasn’t borne out that day in September.

So overtime it was. I was a nervous wreck for the entire overtime period, having felt that Cal had lost their opportunity to win in regulation by failing to hold USC on their last drive. And then, just two plays later, USC fumbled! Cal ball! On the first play of Cal’s possession the Bears gained 15 yards! Victory was ours . . . OH YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME ANOTHER BLOCKED KICK?!? ALAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMMMAAAAARRRRR!!!! (Historical note – at the time I don’t think I even knew the name of Cal’s special teams coach. But I felt that a revisionist history was in order)

At this point, I was 100% sure. There was no way Cal would win this game. Losing a 14 point halftime lead, then a late 4th quarter three point lead, and then blowing a chip shot field goal that would have won the game? You don’t make these mistakes and beat a team like USC. It just doesn’t happen. Even when Reggie Robertson threw a spectacular 25 yard laser touchdown into the outstretched hands of Jonathan Makonnen with two Trojan pass rushers bearing down on him, I didn’t believe. And I really didn’t believe when USC immediately responded with a quick score to send things to a 3rd OT.

I’m not even sure I believed after Ryan Killeen missed a 40 yard field goal after USC’s possession was stymied with a poorly timed penalty. And when Cal failed to get a first down and get any closer for TFred I wasn’t sure I could handle the pain of a 3rd failed attempt. When the field goal unit trotted onto the field the Mic Man (or was it Mic Chick Kate Troescher at the time? My addled brain doesn’t remember) told us all to join our hands in a silent prayer to the Gods of Football. A part of me still believes that the well-timed display of desperate unity somehow made the difference, though TFred kicking one yard further back from the line of scrimmage may have had more to do with it. In any case, you all know what happened next. I was so overwhelmed by the victory that I was momentarily stunned, but I was quickly forced to regain my awareness or risk being trampled by the downward surge of 18-22 year old humanity that flowed onto the field in rapturous celebration of a wholly unexpected win for the ages.

We have two reasons to thank Tyler Frederickson. Beyond hitting the game winning field goal, Tyler was lucky enough to be filming a documentary on Cal football during the game, affording Cal fans a rare view into the locker room both before and after the game. I was so excited to relive my experiences from the game that I went to see his film debut at the Moraga Film Festival. And thanks to youtube his footage I can relive everything any time I want:

Best. Chant. Ever.