PASADENA -- It seemed only a matter of time before Cal's inability to get its offense and defense to play well simultaneously would present a problem. It finally caught up to the Bears on Saturday, and it dramatically changed the complexion of the season.
The No. 10 Bears once again couldn't put together a complete performance, and it sent them plummeting into the middle of the pack of the Pac-10 after a 30-21 loss to UCLA in front of a sellout crowd of 83,494 at the Rose Bowl.
After winning its first five games and ascending to No. 2 in the national rankings, Cal (5-2, 2-2 Pac-10) has lost two in a row and is in sole possession of fifth place in the conference standings.
"It's about pride now," said teary-eyed Cal middle linebacker Worrell Williams. "The national championship is out of the picture and the Rose Bowl is out of the picture, but you still have to play. You still have to suit up and play."
The Bears spent the aftermath of Saturday's loss contemplating their goals for the remainder of the season. At one time, those aspirations were lofty. As recently as two weeks ago, Cal was firmly in the national championship discussion. The Bears talked of an undefeated season.
Where this season is headed now is a mystery, and it's only going to get tougher. The Bears travel to the desert next week to play at conference leader Arizona State, which is ranked No. 8 in the Bowl Championship Series standings. Once considered a consolation prize, a second-place finish and a berth in the Holiday Bowl would seem like an accomplishment now.
"We're just wondering where we stand, trying to figure out where we take it from here," Cal cornerback Brandon Hampton said. "We can't afford to lose another game. We didn't expect to lose this one. Now we have to regroup and get a win."
Even when they were winning their first five games, several Cal players lamented the fact that they weren't able to play a complete game; that they were unable to get the offense and defense to perform at a high level on the same day.
It happened at Colorado State, but the Bears were able to hang on for a six-point win. It happened against Arizona, as Cal built a big lead and then watched the Wildcats storm back against the defense while the offense stalled. And it happened at Oregon, when the defense carried the load in the first half, then had trouble getting stops once the offense got in gear.
Saturday, in the return of quarterback Nate Longshore from a sprained ankle, the Bears moved the ball freely in the first half.
Unfortunately for Cal, so did the Bruins. Then when the Bears were able put together a few stands on defense, the offense slowed down.
"It's a little frustrating, but that's how it's going to be," said Cal running back Justin Forsett, who was bottled up for 76 yards on 25 carries. "There are going to be ebbs and flows of the game. We have to hold up our end and take care of ourselves and let the defense take care of itself."
Cal led 21-20 after DeSean Jackson caught his second touchdown pass of the game with 2:06 left in the third quarter. But the Bruins put together an 11-play drive late in the fourth quarter that culminated in a 27-yard field goal by Kai Forbath for a 23-21 lead.
The Bears' Jahvid Best returned the ensuing kickoff 54 yards to the UCLA 35-yard line, and Cal appeared to be in good shape with 2:54 left. But after two short running plays by Forsett, the Bruins' Alterraun Verner intercepted a Longshore pass and returned it 76 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
It spoiled what was otherwise an effective return for Longshore, who missed last week's loss to Oregon State. Longshore was 22-for-34 for 232 yards and three touchdowns.
"Nate played very courageously," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I thought he did a nice job on his ankle. I thought he threw the ball pretty well, ran the offense well. Of course, he'd like to have the last one back. They made a good play on that."
"I probably should have thrown it away," Longshore said. "He made a great break on it. It was a good play by him."
Jackson caught nine passes for 136 yards and two scores but the Bears could never establish a running game. They gained just 67 yards on the ground on 30 carries.
"Last week, we had a setback. This week, we had another setback," Cal receiver Lavelle Hawkins said. "Now we have to regroup one more time. Of course, we're not going to the national championship. We already know that. But we still have bowl games to go to. I don't want to end up .500."