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Death of the USC-Cal Rivalry

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Sports Ed. note: With USC taking a week off, our guest writer Zack Jerome takes a look at this supposed rivalry.

I went to Agoura High School. If you asked any of us back then who our rival was, we’d have told you Westlake High School, home of the Warriors (and a really disturbing wrestling hazing incident).

We never beat Westlake. I mean never. I was watching SportsCenter years later while attending USC and out of nowhere the anchor announces a highlight from the “Marmonte League” in California. Immediately, I knew. Agoura was on the verge of winning for the first time in something like a decade. All that was left was a kickoff to deal with. In true Westlake tradition, they crafted their own version of “The Play” and beat us in gut-wrenching fashion.

Needless to say, when you ask a Westlake Warrior who their rival is, he’ll tell you, “Thousand Oaks.” We can’t even get them to hate us back. It’s demoralizing.

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This is the same thing that goes on between Cal and USC.

When Jeff Tedford showed up at Berkeley in 2002, he quickly turned around a football team that had become the doormat of the college football universe. After a 1-10 (0-8) campaign under Tom Holmoe in 2001, Tedford took the Golden Bears to a fourth place finish in the Pac-10 in 2002. Although they did not play in a bowl game that year, they finished 7-5which set the stage for 2003.

USC came to Strawberry Canyon and lost a 3OT thriller to Cal that featured everything from missed field goals to fumbles on the goal line. It was an epic clash, a prototype for a Pac-10 shootout, the kind of game East Coast sportswriters miss after falling asleep when the Yankee game ends. USC went on to win the infamous “split” national title that year and all eyes turned to Cal’s 2004 visit to the Coliseum.

That game came down to fourth and goal. Cal had the ball nine yards away from the USC goal line and after three failed attempts to score, then-quarterback Aaron Rodgers let a pass sail into the end zone and the game ended with a Trojan defensive stop. USC went on to win the BCS National Championship that year. Cleanup crews are still finding pieces of the Oklahoma Sooners in the turf of the Orange Bowl.

And that’s where the “rivalry” ended. USC has beaten Cal in seven of their eight meetings since the Tedford era began. Like Westlake High feels about my poor Agoura Chargers, USC feels about Cal- it’s not a rivalry. In fact, the thing USC seems to hate most about Cal is the visitor’s locker room at Memorial Stadium.

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Sure there is history between the two teams, but the reality is that this was a two-year rivalry during 2003 and 2004. Now on the tail end of the decade, looking back at the resumes it seems like this wasn’t much of a rivalry at all.

There were moments. DeSean Jackson fueled the fire by claiming USC wanted him to commit, but didn’t make him feel special enough. He made claims to the LA Times’ Gary Klein in 2006 that “[USC vs Cal] is my own rivalry game. It's been on my calendar all year.” But in true “rivalry” fashion, Jackson made one catch for nine yards in that particular match-up.

In fact, the play Jackson is most remembered for in his games against USC would have to be his beheading by Kevin Ellison. Luckily people forgot about that hit when Jackson decided to spike the football to celebrate a touchdown before reaching the end zone during a match up between his Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys. Seriously.

USC doesn’t lose big games. Other than that nail-biter of a BCS Championship against the Texas Vince Youngs, Pete Carroll has been a master of preparing his teams to compete on the highest level. As we’ve come to know, it’s the sleeper in-conference games that give his Trojans nightmares. A quick trip to Corvallis. An easy home game against The Farm. A little jaunt to the Rose Bowl. Most recently, a game against an old friend up in the Pacific Northwest.

I remember on campus as an undergrad this feeling of a brewing rivalry being palpable. It was there. You knew it was there. USC’s traditional rivalries with UCLA and Notre Dame are deep-seated. So is Cal’s rivalry with Stanford. These kinds of rivalries have withstood the test of time. They are a part of the culture. They are ingrained in the student body.

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You have to wonder why Cal wants to be considered a rival at all. Their only win against USC during the Tedford era came when no one expected anything from them. Still, every time the Cal faithful come down to Los Angeles, I get the same conversations. Conversations about this supposed rivalry. They feel like conversations about wasted youth - what could have been. They are conversations about the great Cal teams that never were.

Another year gone by, another spanking of a Cal team that seems to have lost its bearings after what appeared to be a powerful start. On my birthday, I sat in Palm Springs content to turn on the Dodger game at the half because this was the same old story. This was another chapter in the “Phantom Rivalry”. Honestly, swimming under the desert stars in a kidney shaped pool was more competitive than that game was.

As I said to a couple Cal fans last year at the Coliseum over a few beers and then some more beers, “this just isn’t a rivalry”. It doesn’t mean there aren’t close games. It doesn’t mean the schools don’t hate each other. It only means that true rivalries don’t feature one team doing all the winning.

Cal is too proud of a school to hang their hat on beating USC in a year the Trojans ended up winning the national title. They are too smart to think “almost winning” the following year means something to anyone outside of Strawberry Canyon. For the Nation of Troy, 2003 and 2004 are more remembered for the national titles USC won than for their games against the Golden Bears.

This is a rivalry like the one between a boxer and his punching bag. This is the rivalry between a linebacker and a tackling dummy. This is the rivalry between Joey Chestnut and those innocent hot dogs.

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That is to say, it isn’t one at all.