Eric Gilmore's inside look at sports in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond
Saturday, August 30, 2008
What QB controversy? Cal's Riley ends all doubt
Say goodbye for good to Cal’s quarterback controversy.
I watched it end Saturday night at Memorial Stadium when Kevin Riley threw for two touchdowns and 202 yards with no interceptions while Nate Longshore, coming off the bench, threw two huge interceptions in Cal’s 38-31 win.
Of course Cal coach Jeff Tedford didn’t announce the official end to Longshore’s hopes of regaining the job he owned the past two years. That’s not his style. He’s too loyal to and too protective of his players to ever pile on just minutes after the final gun.
Tedford didn’t have to make any grand pronouncements in his post-game interview. The play of Riley and Longshore spoke for itself.
Riley won the starting job in training camp, but there was an asterisk that came along with his coronation: Tedford said Longshore would get some playing time against MSU, too.
What’s more, he said he wanted to see how Riley handled the pressure when the roles were reversed, with Riley opening the game instead of coming off the bench as he did last season in relief of Longshore, helping Cal overcome a 21-0 deficit and beat Air Force 42-36 in the Armed Services Bowl.
This hardly sounded like a done deal earlier in the week. That was then, before Cal’s victory over MSU.
It was Riley, a redshirt sophomore, who showed the poise of a veteran against Michigan State and answered every question. It was Longshore, a senior who started the past two seasons, who threw two killer interceptions. Strong safety Otis Wiley picked off one Longshore pass in the end zone. He picked off another deep in Cal territory, returning it 31 yards for a touchdown.
“I tried to play a mistake-free game,” Riley said.
In terms of avoiding fumbles and interceptions, that’s exactly what Riley did. But he also made a handful of huge plays at crucial points in a game that easily could have gone the other way.
“I thought he did a nice job of making good decisions, protecting the football,” Tedford said.
If you have a heart that beats, you have to feel for Longshore. Less than a year ago he was the quarterback of a 5-0 Cal team that was ranked second and had designs on a national championship. But he suffered a severe ankle injury in that fifth win, over Oregon, and never was the same as the Bears imploded, losing six of their next seven games.
Then Longshore lost his starting job in a tight battle with Riley that lasted throughout most of training camp. Now this. He threw two picks and once again heard the boos of unhappy Cal fans rain down on him at Memorial Stadium.
When the boos erupted, Riley turned to the student section behind Cal’s bench and signaled for fans to stop booing his teammate.
“I don’t think it’s really respectful for our own fans to boo a player,” Riley said. “He went in there and did his best. Things didn’t work out the way he wanted.”
Riley completed 17 of 24 passes, taking what the Spartans gave him and rarely taking chances. Earlier in the week he said he learned a big lesson last year when he lost his head late in the game against Oregon State when he started for an injured Longshore.
With time running out in that game and Cal out of time outs, Riley tried to scramble for a touchdown instead of throwing the ball away and settling for what would have been a game-tying field goal.
This time there were no late-game disasters, just cool, calm decisions.
I still remember the day Riley signed his letter of intent with Cal. Tedford raved about Riley’s touch on the deep ball as we watched videotape of his high school games. We saw that sweet deep touch again Saturday when Riley lofted a 42-yard rainmaker that landed softly in Sean Young’s arms at the Michigan State 6 midway through the third quarter.
“I thought he did a great job,” Young said. “He was a leader out there. He made us feel comfortable. I knew he could do it all along. We’ve been working together for years as backups. He made it happen. I was excited.”
Moments after his deep strike to Young, Riley rolled right and hit tight end Cameron Morrah, wide open in the end zone, for a 4-yard touchdown. The Bears had handed MSU a touchdown early in the second half after punter Bryan Anger couldn’t handle a high, hard snap. But just like that, Cal was back on top by 10 points, 24-14.
Longshore entered the game with 6:13 left in the first half and Cal leading 10-0. Fans greeted him with a smattering of boos mixed with polite applause.
On his first play, Longshore hit Morrah in stride deep down the left sideline for 50 yards to the Spartans’ 28. It was a perfect start, but after completing two more short passes, Longshore made the type of critical mistake that haunted him down the stretch last season.
Longshore tried to hit Morrah over the middle in the end zone, but Wiley cut in front to intercept then returned 53 yards to Cal’s 47.
A few more boos rained down on Longshore. But Cal’s defense held. So no harm, no foul. Then Longshore forced another pass into traffic, as in four Spartans and only one Bear in the vicinity. Wiley cut in front, picked off the gift and raced 31 yards for a score with 2:30 left in the half, cutting Cal’s lead to 10-7.
This time Cal fans weren’t so kind. The boos grew longer and louder.
With 2:24 left in the half, Riley returned to a loud ovation. He immediately hit Best on a screen pass that went for 42 yards to the Spartans’ 28. Then on his next play, Riley threw a beautifully timed 24-yard pass along the left sideline to Young. Two plays later, Jahvid Best scored on a 2-yard run around right end, putting Cal on top 17-7.
If Tedford wanted to see how Riley responded to adversity, he got his answer. Each time MSU scored, Riley answered.
And he did it with ABC’s cameras rolling and his dad/high school coach, Faustin Riley, watching him play in person for the first time in his Cal career.
“He’s happy,” Riley said of his dad, who coached him at Beaverton High School in Oregon. “I didn’t make any mistakes. Just ran the offense.”
After MSU had cut Cal’s lead yet again to three points with a 97-yard TD drive, Riley had one final answer. He marched the Bears 59 yards for a touchdown, hitting fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou on a 5-yard scoring pass. But it was Riley’s 26-yard pass to Morrah on third-and-13 that keyed the drive. He made that throw while being dragged to the ground, threading a pass to Morrah, who had single coverage.
“I stepped up in the pocket,” Riley said. “I was trying to throw and a couple guys grabbed me. It was one-on-one and the (defender) had his back turned. I thought Cam had a good chance to make the play.”
Morrah’s grab gave Cal a first down at MSU’s 23. Then after Best gained 19 yards around right end, Riley threw his second touchdown pass of a night that wasn’t perfect but was close enough to end whatever remnants of a quarterback controversy that remained.
After nearly 30 years as a sports writer and columnist for the Contra Costa Times, Eric is now a freelance writer, editor and blogger. He was a 49ers beat writer for 10 years, including three Super Bowl seasons, and spent time on the Cal football and basketball beats. He has covered multiple Super Bowls, U.S. Opens and Masters, as well as the NBA, NHL and major-league playoffs.