This is what the USC Trojans have done the past three years when they enter Pac-12 play.
Lose a game (or two. Hello 2010).
Struggle a little bit more.
Rebound by throttling Cal.
This has been the way the Pac-12 world has worked. No team has been more Wile E. Coyoted by the Trojans than the Bears. Six different Pac-10 teams have beaten USC during this three-year stretch, with only Rick Neuheisel and Paul Wulff enduring worse futility than Jeff Tedford's sturdy Golden Bears. Is there some bad luck with how Cal has generally fallen victim to the best effort of the Trojans after lackluster efforts? For sure, but at some point they have to be the ones giving the better effort back, right?
For USC though, it's just a matter of simple economics. They lose, and their BCS title hopes are dead, and Matt Barkley can probably consider this decision to come back an ill-advised one. They win, and it's back to righting the ship for a Pac-12 championship bid. Still a lot can go in their favor, but they have to make it work.
There are a few explanations that lend credence to why USC gives Cal so much trouble compared to other squads, with the most obvious being that USC and Cal recruit for similar styles and the Trojans tend to get the better players. But I'd say the issue that gives the Bears the most trouble has been the dominance USC has experienced on their offensive and defensive lines, which absolutely overwhelms Cal at the point of attack. The Bears run game does precious little and the pass attack can barely get going before the rush gets to their players.
Here's some further elaboration from a NeonTommy interview Kodiak of the California Golden Blogs and I recently answered some questions for regarding Cal's matchup issues with USC.
Cal has not beaten USC in eight years and has not beaten the Trojans in Los Angeles in 12 years. Why has USC been such a bad matchup for Cal over the years?
Kunnath: Cal has a demanding pro-style offense they recruit for that requires solid players that can execute in all phases of the game rather than specialists who would excel in a particular college scheme. There are high barriers to entry here.
USC does all those things better, particularly in finding the linemen in the trenches and the quarterbacks for their system.
Kodiak: I should probably make the obligatory crack about how our players simply aren't as motivated for these games because they're not paid. If you're just looking at match ups, I think it's ultimately been O-line/D-line talent followed closely by quarterback play. 'SC is usually able to make Cal one dimensional by shutting down the run with just their front seven.
And when you factor in that for some of those years, we just haven't had reliable play at QB, that just snowballs. Throw in a bet-on-it specials teams gaffe or three per game, and we've got our current streak.
Moving beyond the field, I think the players and coaches have this weird mental block. I'm not sure if they get overly amped or what. But the Trojan mystique seems to be alive and well in our locker room.
If there was ever a point for Cal to beat USC, it would be today. Never has their front four been weaker on the defensive line, and their offensive line just had moments of absolute ineptitude against a strong Stanford defense. However, as is typically the case, the Trojans tend to put their best foot forward in contests when their back is against the wall, and Cal has been struggling to adapt to their losses this season as much as USC has.
All USC has to do is hold the point of attack against an inexperienced Cal front seven to protect the pass rush, and get pressure off the edge on totally inexperienced Cal offensive tackles, and the Trojans should be in good shape to get to 3-1 and right things for a Pac-12 championship chase.