Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is Cal QB Riley finally winning over his tough-love coach?

I noticed an interesting change Tuesday in Cal coach Jeff Tedford’s approach to quarterback Kevin Riley. It was almost as if Tedford switched roles from bad cop to good cop.

For much of the season, Tedford has been very hard on his young quarterback. No doubt he wanted to humble Riley a bit and make sure he understood how much he still had to learn.

But in the wake of Cal’s 41-20 victory last week over UCLA and just days before a huge home game against Oregon, Tedford had little but praise for Riley during his weekly press conference. Tedford went so far as to say that he might have been too critical of Riley in the past.

I get the feeling that Tedford has had enough of this season-long quarterback shuffle with Riley and Nate Longshore, that he's getting close to going all-in on Riley and that he decided it’s time to start boosting his young QB's confidence. Yeah, I could be wrong. Tedford could do an about-face and make another QB switch – or two or three.

But consider Tedford’s review of Riley’s play against UCLA, a game in which he threw a 53-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker.

“Actually I thought Kevin played pretty well,” Tedford said. “I thought the difference in the game was decision making. They had four turnovers. We had zero. Kevin was harassed a little bit but held onto the ball, pulled it down when he needed to, those type of things. Didn’t make any poor decisions with the football. And that becomes critical in a close game. And then I thought he made some really good throws, too. He made some throws with tight coverage that were right there, that either they made a good defensive play or we maybe dropped a ball.

“I think the play of the game for Kevin was the flea-flicker. That play we had a lot of penetration off our right guard. As (Jahvid Best) is pitching the ball, Kevin’s there waiting for the ball to come back and he’s kind of moving sideways as he gets it and steps up in there and makes a great throw. I thought that was a key play. That was a great play by Kevin. Looking at it. I say again, always probably too critical of that, expecting guys to complete every pass. That’s not going to happen. As I’m watching tape, every quarterback misses throws. But I think we’re kind of used to Aaron Rodgers and those type of things where I think it’s a little easy to be too critical of a very tough position. And Kevin’s playing fine. Sure, he is going to miss a guy every now and then. Everybody does. I thought Kevin played a good game last week.”

If you’ve followed this quarterback saga at Cal this year, you know that qualifies as high praise from Tedford for Riley. It seems that Tedford is starting to truly appreciate the way Riley makes decisions and avoids turnovers. Just two of his 150 passes have been picked off. He has thrown nine touchdown passes.

Then there’s Riley’s mobility and quickness, assets that are even more important in light of mounting injuries that have struck Cal’s offensive line.

“I think one of his tools is to be able to pull the ball down and run,” Tedford said. “And he’s not afraid to do that, and he will do that. He’ll take a sack and get up. He’s made good decisions that way. If nothing’s there, either it’s a coverage sack or someone happens to get beat up front, or the backs or the tight ends or whomever’s in charge of that pass protection scheme, he’s made good sound decisions and pulled the ball down and not turned the football over. And that’s critical.”

Tedford didn’t go so far as to say Riley would definitely start against Oregon. But asked if he saw Riley as his starter this week, Tedford said, “As of right now.”

Spoken like a good cop.

Here’s a transcript of brief interview with Riley after Tuesday night’s practice.

Q: The coach came about as close as he has to naming his QB starter on a Tuesday. He said you are the starter as of right now. Does that give you confidence going into the week?

Riley: "Yeah. Definitely. After I watched the film I felt a little better about the UCLA game. There's still some throws i wish i could take back, just a little high, that could have been caught balls. But overall i thought it was OK. Needs to be better of course. It feels good. I actually didn't hear that. Definitely. We just got to get ready. We've got a good Oregon team. They're strong all around, especially on 'D'. I mean, that's all I've watched. Just watching them, they don't make a lot of mistakes. They're sound. This is going to be the best game we're going to have to play all year."

Q: The coach was talking about the way you managed the game and your decision making. He stressed no turnovers. Were you pleased with the decisions you made?

Riley: "I think I've done a pretty good job of that all year, taking care of the ball. That's something you need to do to win the game. There was one bad throw, the start of the second half on the first drive. That was a dumb throw and almost got picked. Even learning from that, I can't do that. Just drop down and run, get some yards. Just got to come out, make more plays, be smart with the ball. If there's some turnovers against this team, it's going to be a lot more trouble than it was last week."

Q: Coach said he's been overly critical of the offense this year. You guys do that to yourselves too. Is that a good thing, though, that you're expecting perfection?

Riley: "I think so. It hasn't happened. It kind of seems like our best game offensively was that Michigan state game. Everybody expects more and we expected by now that we'd be more in a rhythm all around like consecutive four quarters playing good offense. Like we say every week, we've got to start out early, but we've got to maintain that. We can't have that third quarter where penalties just killed us the whole quarter. It's hard to get in a rhythm at all when you're getting third-and-20, second-and-40. It's very unlikely you're going to convert those. So just try to keep ourselves in good situations to make plays, and I think we will."

Q: How good is the Oregon secondary?

Riley:"They're good. There's no question about it. We're going to have to be strong with the ball. They can jump stuff, make plays, big hitters. Probably overall the best secondary we're going to go against all year. Like I said, we're going to have to play our best game of football."

Q: Is this a game where a few runs by you might help to slow down Oregon's pass rush?

Riley: "Yeah, possibly. We're just going to have to see. They bring the rush. They do what they've done for a while now. They have the same 'D' that they had last year. They're just going to do what they're good at. We just got to be ready for everything."

Q: Did you get recruited by Oregon?

Riley: "I did a little bit. They were pretty late. They were a little late in their recruiting. For a home-state boy (Beaverton High School), I was like, 'What's going on?' No grudge at all against them. I know they're a good school. ... I knew about Oregon, growing up watching them. Coach (Mike Bellotti) was there when I was growing up. It's going to be kind of cool to start against the home state. Last year my first game ever was against Oregon State. I know a couple guys on their team. So it will be fun."

Q: Did Oregon State recruit you?

Riley: "Yeah. They recruited me a lot more."

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