August 31, 2008

Cal's Riley matures in wake of mistakes

California 38, Michigan State 31: Recap | Box score | Photos

BERKELEY, Calif. A play-fake caused the Michigan State defense to flow right as California quarterback Kevin Riley rolled out to the left.

Riley looked downfield. He saw one receiver covered. Then another. Finally, he cocked his strong right arm and hurled the football about 40 yards.

And waaaaay out of bounds.

In response, the majority of the 62,956 paying customers inside Memorial Stadium, and a couple of hundred freeloaders up on Tightwad Hill, roared approval.

Never has an incomplete pass caused such a stir.

But progress has many faces. The last time Riley played a game on his home field, he didn't throw the ball away and instead ran on an ill-advised scramble that allowed the clock to expire and cost the then-No. 2 Bears a chance to force overtime in a 31-28 loss to Oregon State last October.

"I thought he did a nice job of making good decisions," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.

Dumping the ball showed Riley has learned from his mistakes. Perhaps the Bears have, too.

In recent seasons, victories such as Saturday night's 38-31 win over Michigan State were seen as evidence the Bears were on the verge of national prominence. And it would be tempting to think that again.

"(The win) is significant," sophomore tailback Jahvid Best said. "This just sets the tone for the rest of the year. We have a lot of unknowns and questions, and we gave a lot of answers."

Cal got sound quarterback play from Riley, who passed for more than 200 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Best and Shane Vereen each rushed for more than 100 yards. The defense played well and special teams created a touchdown.

CALIFORNIA 38, MICHIGAN STATE 31
WHAT HAPPENED
Sparked by a blocked punt, Cal jumped out to an early lead. Then, in the fourth quarter, Will Ta'ufo'ou caught a touchdown pass and Shane Vereen had an 81-yard touchdown run to hold off the Spartans' comeback bid.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF GAME
Making only his second career start, Cal sophomore Kevin Riley was 17 of 24 for 202 yards and two touchdowns.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF GAME
Michigan State senior strong safety Otis Wiley almost single-handedly kept the Spartans in contention. Wiley had two interceptions. The first, at the goal line, prevented California from taking a 17-point lead. He returned the second 31 yards for a touchdown.
TURNING POINT
Michigan State cut the lead to 24-21 early in the fourth quarter and seemed to have momentum. But facing a third-and-13, Riley fought off a sack attempt to make a big completion to keep a crucial scoring drive alive. That conversion led to a 5-yard touchdown pass that gave Cal a 10-point lead with 5:45 remaining. "I think maybe the play of the game for us offensively was on the third and long where he was in the grasp and threw it to Cameron (Morrah) for a big first down," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.
KEY INJURIES
None.
ETC.
Michigan State had two touchdowns nullified in the first half. B.J. Cunningham was called for offensive pass interference to negate an apparent 43-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Later, Mark Dell appeared to make a diving 22-yard touchdown catch, but replays showed he trapped it. Last season, Dell had 20 catches for 220 yards. Against Cal, he had nine catches for 202 yards and appears to be the go-to receiver in the wake of Devin Thomas' early departure for the NFL. Brett Johnson blocked a Michigan State punt in the first quarter, resulting in a touchdown by Bryant Nnabuife. It was Cal's first blocked punt since Oct. 14, 2006, against Washington State. Sophomore tailback Jahvid Best had a career-high 24 carries. He had 29 carries last season.
There were a lot of reasons to be optimistic, just as there was after last season's 45-31 opening win over Tennessee and an early victory over Arizona State in 2006 - and a five-game winning streak to start '05.

But Cal has faltered down the stretch, going 1-2 in November in each of the past three seasons. Nobody seems to be looking ahead this season - not with a first-year starting quarterback, a new starting tailback and not with the top three receivers from last season now in the NFL.

The victory over Michigan State, in which the Bears had to hold off the Spartans' fourth-quarter comeback bid, gave reason to believe there is at least a chance to develop into a team that could eventually challenge USC, Arizona State and Oregon for Pac-10 supremacy.

Facing Michigan State wasn't an easy way to start the season. The Spartans averaged 33 points per game last season and seven starters returned from that offense, including quarterback Brian Hoyer and elusive tailback Javon Ringer.

The Bears' defense limited the Spartans to three offensive touchdowns and one of those was a gift after punter Bryan Anger fumbled the snap and had a frantic attempt blocked, setting up Michigan State at Cal's 12.

Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards last season, but the Bears limited him to 81 yards on 27 carries. Although Ringer did score two touchdowns, his longest run covered just 10 yards.

"We did a nice job against the run," Tedford said. "They have a big offensive line and a great tailback. I thought we did a great job stacking things up most of the night.

"Our pass rush didn't get any sacks, but I thought we rushed well and made (Hoyer) throw the ball early. He threw a couple of times before his receivers turned around."

The Bears also can be encouraged by their running game, which is without Justin Forsett - who exceeded 1,500 rushing yards a year ago.

Best, a sophomore, showed he might actually be an upgrade. He rushed for 111 yards on 24 carries and frequently appeared one blink away from breaking long, scoring runs. Vereen, a redshirt freshman, rushed for 101 yards - including an 81-yard touchdown burst late in the fourth quarter.

But the primary reason to be encouraged is the play of Riley, who just last week was named the starter over incumbent Nate Longshore.

Longshore, who has been a high-risk, high-reward quarterback throughout his career, passed for more than 2,500 yards in each of the past two seasons. However, he also has thrown 26 interceptions in that span. Even more frustrating was when he threw them: He threw seven interceptions and lost a fumble in the fourth quarter of five Cal losses last season.

Longshore was in for two series Saturday - and both ended with interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

Riley, on the other hand, was clutch in the fourth quarter. He completed all three passes he attempted. The biggest one was for 26 yards to Cameron Morrah on a third-and-13 when Riley was perilously close to being dragged down for a sack.

"I stepped up in the pocket and looked downfield," Riley said. "Cameron had his guy beat. The safety wasn't looking at me. He was looking at Cameron in one-on-one coverage, and I knew (Cameron) would have a good chance to make the play."

That play, perhaps more than any other even two completions that covered 42 yards showed Tedford's choice to start Riley was the right one.

But whether that move results in Cal becoming a championship contender remains to be seen.

Check back in November.

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



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