LOS ANGELES (Ticker) -- Aaron Rodgers nearly was perfect until it counted most.
Rodgers, who matched an NCAA record by completing 23 consecutive passes, threw an incomplete pass on 4th-and-goal with 1:16 left as No. 7 California fell to top-ranked Southern California, 23-17, in a key Pac-10 Conference matchup.
The defending co-national champion Trojans (5-0, 2-0 Pac-10) avenged their only defeat from last season, posting their 14th consecutive victory and 25th in 26 games.
"It was a competitive game from the start," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "Obviously, it was a really exciting game to be part of and it was tense the whole time. There was never any moment that you really could feel like you got something going ... without them just nipping at out heels."
"It was a great game," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I'm very proud of our kids."
USC led throughout this one but nearly was toppled by Rodgers, who completed his first 23 passes - tying a mark set by Tennessee's Tee Martin vs. South Carolina on October 31, 1998 - to give him a record 30 straight completions over two games.
"We watched him on film and we know how good of a quarterback he is," USC nose tackle Mike Patterson said of Rodgers. "We already knew what he could do and everything, but we just had to keep on getting after it."
The Golden Bears (3-1, 1-1) trailed, 23-17, when Tom Schneider pushed wide right a 36-yard field goal with 6:53 left. But Cal stopped USC on its ensuing possession and got the ball back at its 35 with 4:31 remaining, and Rodgers quickly moved the team downfield.
But after a 17-yard completion to Geoff McArthur set up 1st-and-goal at the USC 9, the Bears stalled. Rodgers threw an incomplete pass in the end zone on first down, was sacked on second, was incomplete on third down and, after using Cal's final timeout, missed a diving Jonathan Makonnen with 1:16 remaining. USC then ran out the clock.
"It looks like he was held, like he was bumped or held or something," Rodgers said of his teammate. "I'm pretty frustrated. We dominated the game. We drove up and down the field all game and our defense was awesome. We just came up short."
"I know I was running on empty," USC defensive tackle Shaun Cody said of the last play. "We played a lot of defense in the second half and a lot of plays, so I remember just calling upon the fans and them just responding. To feel that magic in the (sold-out Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum, it was an awesome feeling."
Rodgers finished 29-of-34 for 264 yards and a touchdown, while McArthur had seven catches for 101 yards and a score. J.J. Arrington added 112 yards on 21 carries for the Bears, who held the ball for 37:11 but slipped to 0-7 all time against No. 1 teams.
"Our offense went up and down the field on them and J.J. ran the ball well," Tedford said. "(But) we needed to make plays at the end. We got down there too many times without making plays."
Matt Leinart was 15-of-25 for 164 yards, two TDs and an interception for USC, which was outgained, 424-205.
It was the Trojans' fewest yards since gaining 189 vs. Florida State in 1998 and their fewest in a win since gaining 197 at Baylor in 1986.
USC opened the scoring on a five-yard pass from Leinart to LenDale White midway through the first quarter. The Trojans got the ball on the Cal 31 after a botched snap on a punt and took nine plays to score.
Ryan Killeen's 31-yard field goal late in the first quarter - which came after Rodgers was sacked and lost a fumble at the USC 37 - made it 10-0 before Schneider got Cal on the board on a 39-yard kick with 10:16 left in the second quarter.
The Bears pulled within 13-10 on a 20-yard pass from Rodgers to McArthur with 1:37 remaining in the first half but Killeen countered with a 42-yard field goal with three seconds left.
Leinart's 16-yard pass to freshman Dwayne Jarrett made it 23-10 just under three minutes into the second half before Marshawn Lynch capped the scoring with a two-yard run with 5 1/2 minutes left in the period.