Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cal's Riley deserves another start after turnover-free day and win vs. UCLA

Cal’s revolving door at quarterback continued spinning Saturday, and no one, including coach Jeff Tedford, knows if or when it will ever stop before the season ends.

Kevin Riley returned to the starting lineup Saturday, throwing two touchdown passes in a penalty-fiilled 41-20 victory over UCLA that was uglier and closer than the score indicates.

In a span of roughly two months, Riley won the starting job out of training camp, lost it to Nate Longshore after four games and won it back after two games on the bench.

So will Riley start next week against Oregon?

“We’ll see,” Tedford said. “Same thing. Evaluate through the week.”

Tedford may need to see more, but I saw enough from Riley on Saturday to believe he deserves another start. And with just five games left for the 5-2 Bears, it might be a good time for a little stability at the quarterback position.

No, Riley wasn’t perfect against UCLA. He completed just 11 of 22 passes for 153 yards. He missed some wide-open receivers. Again. But as he’s done throughout most of the season, Riley made good decisions and avoided the type of killer interceptions that have plagued Longshore.

Not one of Riley’s 22 passes, in fact, was picked off Saturday. For the season, he’s been intercepted just twice in 150 passes while throwing nine touchdown passes.

On the flip side, UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft threw four interceptions Saturday, and Cal returned two of those for touchdowns. Ball game.

“We need to be better, still,” Tedford said when asked about Riley’s performance. “I think Kevin would tell you that, too. … But he was harassed a lot today in pass protection. That’s the worst that we’ve protected the passer all year.

“The thing about Kevin, though, is Kevin made good decisions. He didn’t turn the football over. The difference is they had four turnovers. We had zero. That’s a big part of the game, and Kevin didn’t turn the football over. Even though he was harassed in the pocket, he made good decisions, threw the ball away, ate the ball.”

Riley did more than just avoid mistakes. He also made a huge play in the fourth quarter, using his agility to avoid a UCLA defensive lineman then throwing a 53-yard touchdown pass to Nyan Boateng on a flea-flicker with 9:29 left to play.

First, let’s set the stage.

The Bruins trailed just 20-13 with over 10 minutes left to play. They faced third-and-23 from their 31. Time to punt? Nah. Coach Rick Neuheisel ordered a fake punt, and it almost worked.

Punter Aaron Perez connected with a wide-open Courtney Viney down the right sideline, but cornerback Chris Conte recovered just in time to tackle him one yard short of the first down.

Cal took over at its 47. And on first down, the Bears hit UCLA with a trick play of their own.

The play started with Riley handing off to Jahvid Best, who headed toward the line. But Best stopped, turned and pitched the ball back to Riley. The Bruins bit on the fake, and Boateng ran past safety Bret Lockett.

Riley stepped up in the pocket, avoiding a rusher, and threw a high-arching pass deep down the middle. Boateng caught it at the 3 and fell into the end zone, putting Cal ahead 27-13.

“Right when I (handed) the ball to Jahvid, the nose tackle saw me set up,” Riley said. “I saw that. I knew he was going to come at me. So I just tried to step up and get it off. It worked. We needed it.”

The Bears and their banged up offensive line will continue to face fierce pass rushes in the coming weeks, starting with Oregon and continuing against USC and Oregon State. The Bears will need Riley’s ability to avoid the rush and to run, whether by design or out of necessity, against those defenses. Against UCLA, he ran a handful of quarterback draws.

“I like running the ball,” Riley said. “It calms you down a little bit, too. You just get hit. You go, ‘Ah, sweet.’ You’re part of the game. It was fun. I wish we would have broke one.”

Riley came off the bench and replaced Longshore in the fourth quarter of Cal’s 42-27 loss to Arizona last week. He didn’t find out he was going to start against UCLA until Friday.

“It’s not the easiest thing, but it’s just something you have to deal with,” Riley said of the quarterback shuffle and uncertainty. “You can’t really worry about it. You’ve just got to go in, play your game, do your best and try to win.”

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