April 23, 2008

Cal quarterback Riley's popularity rebounds

In times of despair, comfort can be found from a parent's sympathetic ear or words of encouragement.

And if there was ever a time that California quarterback Kevin Riley needed compassion, it was after the second-ranked Bears lost 31-28 to Oregon State on Oct. 13.

With Cal in range of a short field goal that would've forced overtime, Riley then a redshirt freshman making his first career start in place of injured Nate Longshore ran from the pocket rather than throw a clock -stopping incompletion in the game's final seconds. He was tackled at Oregon State's 9, and time ran out before Cal could line up for a field-goal attempt.

Cal's hopes of an undefeated season were over, and the chance to ascend to No. 1 in the nation (top-ranked LSU had lost to Kentucky earlier that day) for the first time since 1951 was gone. Disappointed fans in Berkeley blamed him for the loss. They blamed him for ruining the season. They blamed him for killing their buzz.

A few minutes later, Faustin Riley - a football coach at Beaverton (Ore.) High School who had proudly watched the youngest of his four children grow from a 5-foot-5, 107-pound eighth-grade overachiever into a 6-3, 215-pound college quarterback - met with his son outside Cal's locker room.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'You really messed up,' " Kevin said.

Kevin Riley was laughing when he told that story, which says a lot about him.

Such an unfortunate mistake in such a demoralizing loss could cripple a player's confidence. It could impede his development. It could leave him seeking out the security of the sideline.

That wasn't the case for Riley, who several weeks later got the last laugh. Again in place of the injured Longshore, he had an excellent performance in a victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl and undoubtedly established himself as Cal's quarterback of the future. The only question is whether that's the near or distant future.

Riley entered spring practice expecting to challenge Longshore's two-year hold on the starting job. The oft-injured Longshore pulled a pectoral muscle and has missed the past two weeks of practice, allowing Riley to take the vast majority of snaps with the first team.

The competition doesn't figure to be settled until August. But even in that game against Oregon State, it was apparent a competition was coming.

Because of the way that game ended, frustrated fans forgot Riley went 20 of 34 for 294 yards and two touchdowns. They forgot the Bears trailed 31-21 with less than three minutes remaining and Riley threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Lavelle Hawkins. They forgot that on the final drive, he threw a 19-yard completion on fourth-and-17, then threw a 37-yard pass to Robert Jordan to put the Bears in position to tie.

"We had a chance to win and it's too bad the way it ended. I know I messed up that situation," Riley said. "I took a lot of crap from people in the Bay Area. They said I ruined the season or ruined their life. But you've just go to brush that off."

Even on that disappointing night, Faustin Riley was sure his son would bounce back. "He's pretty good at flushing stuff and moving on to the next thing," Faustin said. "He's just got a special makeup. He's always had the chip. He always felt like he's underestimated."

If anyone thought one mistake even a monumental one was going to make Kevin Riley collapse, they were underestimating him.

Riley did not play again until he replaced Longshore, who was struggling on a sprained ankle, with Cal trailing Air Force 21-0 in the bowl game. Riley went 16 of 19 passing for 269 yards and three touchdowns to lead Cal to a 42-36 victory.

"After the Air Force game, some of those guys that were bad-mouthing me were saying 'way to go,' " Riley said. "But that's the whole sports atmosphere. When you're winning, they love you, and when you're losing, they hate you. That's part of it."

Now, he's beloved, as most second-team quarterbacks are. Although some believe Longshore eventually will emerge as the Bears' starter in 2008, Riley has become the popular choice among fans who have grown weary of Longshore's frequent injuries and costly turnovers.

Last season, Longshore threw eight interceptions in the fourth quarter; seven of those came with the Golden Bears trailing by nine or fewer points.

Some might wonder if either quarterback really wants to be the starter this season, which on the surface might seem like a no-win situation. Cal lost its top three receivers from '07 DeSean Jackson, Jordan and Hawkins as well as leading rusher Justin Forsett. On top of that, tailback James Montgomery expected to replace Forsett in the starting lineup transferred to Washington State. But the ever-confident Riley is convinced the Bears can be better than last season's team, which finished 7-6.

"We have some young kids that are inexperienced, but are tremendous athletes. They're talented, they just haven't played," he said. "We have some redshirts that now have chances to be big contributors. There will be some first-game jitters because there will be a lot of people and it's a big stage. But we definitely have athletes."

Whether Riley is the starter when the Golden Bears open the season against Michigan State on Aug. 30, the Berkeley faithful can be encouraged that they have a quarterback who has proved he handle the toughest situations, come back and even flourish.

Riley knows he needs to get better, and feels like he has this spring.

"I know the offense now and all the reads," he said. "I'm just more confident in the pocket and the huddle. Every play I feel confident. It's completely different since last year. I've just got to execute the offense and make as few mistakes as possible. If I don't execute the offense, I won't be the starter.

"I've got to make the right choices."

TRIVIA QUESTION

Name the four college teams that have had more than 60 players taken in the first round of the NFL draft. (Answer at the end of the column.)

SEEKING MIDDLE GROUND

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said to expect the Mountaineers' offense to use the middle of the field more than they did under previous coach Rich Rodriguez.

"We've got to exploit the middle of the field. It's been left open for far too long," he said.

Stewart said getting the football to receivers between the linebackers and safeties will add an extra component to an already-explosive spread offense, which previously focused on getting the ball outside.

Rivals Radio: WVU coach Bill Stewart joins Bill King

EDSALL WANTS NOTRE DAME

Count Connecticut coach Randy Edsall as a staunch supporter of a series with Notre Dame, and not because the Irish posted only three victories last season.

The proposed 10-year series could begin as early as 2009 and would include five games at Notre Dame and five games at neutral sites such as Foxboro, Mass. and East Rutherford, N.J.

Edsall said a series with Notre Dame would raise UConn's profile and provide better recruiting opportunities in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

QUICK HITTERS

  • Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski has indefinitely suspended defensive end Brady Smith for violation of team rules. Smith was charged with sexual assault and breaking and entering last weekend. Smith posted 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season.

  • Redshirt freshman George Bryan was a surprise star of Maryland's spring game. The reserve tight end came down with a long pass on the final play to give the Red team a 23-21 win over the White.

  • There was quite a prize at "steak" for Kansas State's spring game. And that's no typo. By virtue of their 3-0 victory last week, members of the White team were awarded steak as a post-game meal. Members of the losing purple team had bologna.

  • Last week's Nebraska spring game drew 80,419 fans, believed to be the second-highest attendance ever for a spring game. Last year Alabama drew 92,138 fans. Tickets for the Nebraska game were $10, but there were reports that some tickets were being sold for $100. The Red beat the White 24-14.

  • Washington center Juan Garcia was caught in a pile in a recent scrimmage and injured a joint in his left foot. He'll be out indefinitely. The injury is similar to the foot injury that prematurely ended the season of then-Huskies quarterback Isaiah Stanback two years ago.

  • South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier announced that he wouldn't name a starting quarterback until August. Coincidentally, quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher combined to throw eight interceptions in lat week's Garnet and Black game. The Gamecocks' other quarterback, Stephen Garcia, was suspended for the spring.

    TRIVIA ANSWER

    Ohio State has had 66 first-round draft picks, while USC has had 65 and Notre Dame and Miami 61 each.

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




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