BERKELEY -- Thomas DeCoud was deep into a thoughtful soliloquy on the root causes of Cal's three-game losing streak when Lavelle Hawkins offered a simpler perspective.
"It's his fault," the receiver said as he walked past DeCoud, jokingly pointing a finger at the Cal safety. "He's not making tackles."
The Golden Bears haven't lost their sense of humor, but they've lost almost everything else they spent the past year trying to achieve.
With three losses to Pac-10 opponents in a 15-day span, Cal's dreams of a national title, a conference crown and a return to the Rose Bowl after a half-century absence are all dead for another season. The Berkeley campus that buzzed with football excitement last month is back to its normal mellow vibe.
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Cal (5-3, 2-3) even fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since December 2005 with the longest losing streak in coach Jeff Tedford's six seasons at the school.
"It causes you to reflect and look in the mirror and say, 'Are we doing the right things?' " Tedford said Tuesday before the Bears began preparations for their home game against Washington State on Saturday night. "It's something we definitely had to talk about, because I think you'd be naive to say it hasn't been a pretty heavy hit that we've taken," Tedford said. "From being where we were a few weeks ago to the three losses -- to say that has no effect on us, that would be very naive. We've just been talking about the pride, and playing for the love of the game."
The fall is even more painful for Tedford and his players because Cal's season began with such high promise.
The Bears opened with a sound victory over Tennessee, then earned a gritty road win at Oregon four weeks later to move to 5-0.
But everything has changed since Cal's bye week after knocking off the Ducks, who have risen to No. 4 while the Bears plummeted.
"I think we got a little bit into the hype of being No. 2," DeCoud said. "We got to the top. We thought we couldn't get any higher ... and I think we shied away from some of the more detailed things that we did in the past. We just got lax in the finer details."
Cal's first loss to Oregon State wasn't decided until backup quarterback Kevin Riley failed to get the field-goal unit onto the field to attempt a game-tying kick. The 31-28 defeat prevented the second-ranked Bears from ascending to the top spot after No. 1 LSU lost a few hours earlier, disappointing a huge crowd of long-suffering Bears fans who already had begun to chant, "We're No. 1!"
Cal's second loss at UCLA again was decided on a last-minute quarterback mistake, this time Nate Longshore's intercepted pass.
The 30-21 defeat essentially knocked the Bears out of the Bowl Championship Series race, leaving them only with faint optimism about a Pac-10 title shot.
But the Bears were reeling by last weekend, when unbeaten Arizona State came from behind for a 31-20 victory. It was the knockout blow on Cal's hopes for anything better than a minor bowl game.
Hawkins and senior linebacker Justin Moye (Central Catholic) are among the players who spent their evenings surfing college football highlight shows on television three weeks ago, contemplating their place in the title race. These days, Hawkins and Moye flip off the TV whenever football pops up.
"It hurts me a lot," said Hawkins, who has 44 catches for 603 yards and four touchdowns in an outstanding senior season. "I was thinking to myself this morning, 'Man, why does this have to happen my senior year?' These teams beat me on my last go-round, and there's nothing I can really do about it."
Despite the emotional void after their fall, the Bears still have several motivational rallying posts. USC visits Berkeley next weekend for a showdown that won't be nearly as exciting as many expected last month, and no Cal team ever has trouble getting up for the season-ending Big Game against Stanford.
But no matter where the Bears end up in the bowl picture, they'll spend the winter and next spring lamenting what got away in 15 terrible days of October.
"It's exciting to be at the top of the polls, even when you try not to think about it," defensive end John Allen said. "To have that taken away from us in three weeks, it's emotionally tough to deal with that. I don't know where we'll end up now, even if we win all our games."