Rodgers, Cal do everything right but win

LOS ANGELES -- Four-and-a-half minutes to play on a sun-kissed SoCal Saturday, and the world belonged to Aaron Rodgers.

In the final stages of a quarterbacking masterpiece against No. 1 USC, Rodgers popped his head into the California huddle and told his teammates, "We're going to go 65 yards right here and win it."

The Trojans led No. 7 Cal 23-17, but who could doubt him? Rodgers was perfection in shoulder pads. All he'd done was complete his first 23 passes on the day -- tying an NCAA single-game record -- and 26 in a row going back to Cal's previous game -- breaking an NCAA season record. You could argue that legendary Los Angeles Coliseum hadn't seen a college quarterback sling it like this since Joe Montana was wearing a golden Notre Dame helmet and leading a comeback against USC in 1975.

Surely the crowd of 90,008 had to believe that Rodgers would finish the job and deliver a program-altering moment for Cal. The Bears had never beaten a No. 1-ranked team in school history -- and here they had the Trojans rocked back on their royal heels. All things seemed possible: a landmark victory, the inside track to the school's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959 and, hey, maybe even the Orange Bowl and a shot at the BCS national championship.

All that stood between the Bears and pure bliss was a lousy 65 yards.

Rodgers, who outplayed the more celebrated Matt Leinart, began making the yards disappear right away. He scrambled for 14. He threw for two. He threw for 11. Two J.J. Arrington runs gained 12 yards. Then Rodgers rifled one into an opening the size of a hubcap to Geoff McArthur for 17 yards -- his 29th completion in 31 attempts, with the only two misses coming on balls he intentionally threw away.

Cal had first and goal at the nine, 1:47 to play. The Trojans called time.

And that's when Rodgers transformed into a mere mortal.

Off a bootleg, the senior tried to a jam a throw in to Burl Toler in the end zone when running might have been a better option -- incomplete. He took a sack. He rolled out again and fired for McArthur in the end zone -- incomplete. And on fourth down from the 14, he fired for McArthur on a corner-post route -- again, once and for all, incomplete.

The end of a fall classic. The guy who could not miss could not finish. He argued for a moment for a flag on the play, then unbuckled his chinstrap and walked off, the storybook ending unwritten.

USC had escaped -- heroically resilient in the minds of the home crowd, lucky as sin in the minds of the visitors. And the moment had come and gone for Cal.

A dominant performance had ended in defeat. Asked if he were shocked that the Bears somehow didn't win, Rodgers smiled briefly and joylessly.

"Yeah," he said. "Of course. We think we were the better team. In the end we couldn't execute and get the win."

This after a stunning day of execution, as the Bears produced a veritable training film on how to throw, catch, block and run. And this wasn't against New Mexico State -- it was against the defending AP national champions.

They more than doubled USC's yardage, 424-205. They held the ball for 13 more minutes. They got the performance of a lifetime from their quarterback -- and still lost.

"Anybody who watches this game, you take away that we dominated the game," Rodgers said.

"They beat us today," said safety Ryan Gutierrez. "I feel we could beat these guys nine out of 10 times if we played them."

Maybe so -- but that's the thing about college football. This was a one-shot opportunity. And thus the Bears weren't quite sure how to feel afterward.

They were proud of the statement they made on one of those golden afternoons that makes you believe Angelenos lived blessed lives -- a statement to Tommy Trojan and the nation as a whole.

Rodgers can throw with any QB in America, and Cal is a legit top 10 team -- perhaps even one of the nation's five best. Win out, and the Bears would seem a lock for a BCS bowl.

"We are one of the best teams in the country," McArthur said. "That's not taking anything away from SC, they're a great team. But I feel we made a statement today, even though we didn't win."

Statements are good, but the Bears also can bang their heads forever off this hard reality: they let arguably the biggest victory in program history get away.

Don't blame the offense. Don't blame a defense that repeatedly kept Cal in the game despite being stuck in tight spots. Blame the special teams.

Cal gift-wrapped USC's first 10 points. It failed to get off a punt when kicker David Lonie panicked after a low snap, leading to a Trojan touchdown. Then punt returner Tim Mixon dropped a punt at the Cal 21, leading to a Trojan field goal. A missed 36-yard field goal by Tom Schneider in the fourth quarter meant that the Bears were forced to go for the winning touchdown in the end instead of a short tying field goal.

"It takes all three phases to win," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.

Rodgers nearly made up for the special-teams fiasco himself, looking better than any quarterback on the nearby San Francisco 49ers' roster. (You have to think the young man made himself some NFL money Saturday.) Patiently taking what Southern Cal's cover-two defense gave him, Rodgers fired pinpoint passes all over the yard -- and the receivers caught everything that hit their hands.

"It was a really fantastic, incredible showing by their quarterback," USC coach Pete Carroll said.

"He's as good as they come, no question," Tedford said. "Physically, mentally, he's a great competitor, a great leader. ... The guy is one of the best players in the country, if not the (best player in the country).

"Is he a Heisman candidate? I would find it very difficult to find a better quarterback than him in the country."

Rodgers said he knew he had a long completion streak going -- he just didn't know how long. Two of his throws hit the turf, but the plays were called back on penalties. Everything else hit the hands of somebody in white.

"I was just in a zone," Rodgers said.

Said McArthur: "That guy, he was a superhero today."

Until the very end, when mortality returned. Cal is for real and so is its quarterback, but they couldn't sustain perfection for a full 60 minutes.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.