The Worldwide Leader has not been good to the Cal football team.
This fall, ESPN has broadcast three Cal games. The first two, both slotted into barren Thursday nights, saw the Bears blown out by Oregon and USC in back-to-back weeks. (Cumulative score: 73-24.) Both programs are at the top of the Pac-12, so the Bears have some excuse for flopping on national television.
Last Saturday, the Bears played a tight game against one-loss Stanford, but in a late game that wrapped up after half the country already fell asleep. Although Zach Maynard and company fell a field goal short of the upset, the performance was one of the high points of the 2011 campaign.
Will that effort carry over one more week?
Right now, Cal is a team without a signature victory. It has beaten worse teams and lost to better teams — October’s vomit-inducing loss to UCLA the lone outlier.
This Friday, with a 7:15 p.m. PST start on ESPN, the Bears have one more chance to surprise their audience. They will travel to Arizona State, which has lost its last three games despite being favored every time.
A few weeks ago, this looked like a game that the Bears had no chance of stealing. Arizona State was one of the hottest squads in the country, a popular preseason pick that had managed to live up to the talk. With USC still sanctioned and the rest of the conference tripping over its feet, ASU had the inside track to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship and an outside shot at the Rose Bowl.
Since then, the Sun Devils have been running with their pants around their ankles.
After winning five of their first six games, they have dropped four of the last five. Only one — a 41-27 loss to Oregon — was excusable. If the Bruins — who hold a one-game lead over ASU in the Pac-12 as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker — end up playing Oregon for a spot in Pasadena, Arizona State will have completed this year’s biggest Pac-12 choke job.
In its latest loss, an embarrassing 31-27 decision two hours south at Arizona, quarterback Brock Osweiler chucked the ball 65 times. His previous career high was 46. In what was billed as the “Ring of Honor” game, running back Cameron Marshall mustered 44 yards. It was the second consecutive game where he averaged less than three per carry.
A formerly formidable defense that has 28 takeaways on the season has only forced three turnovers in November. It allowed an average of 500 yards over that same span.
By year’s end, head coach Dennis Erickson may no longer be employed.
He does have the benefit of trying to salvage his job at Sun Devil Stadium. In recent years, Cal has fallen apart on the road. This year is not a notable exception. The team has only one road win, a victory over Colorado that required a game-saving touchdown drive. The Buffs have only won two games since.
As it stands now, the game does not greatly affect the overall assessment of the 2011 season. Whether the Bears head to the Sun Bowl, Vegas Bowl or Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is of little consequence in the grander picture.
But both the Bears and Sun Devils are coming off rivalry game losses. The eventual winner may just be the team that wants it more.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cal had only one win away from AT&T Park. In fact, the Bears have had two wins: one at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and one at Colorado.